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Drone-Maker Sees Growing Maritime Surveillance Market

The closely held company behind the successful Predator-series drones sees growing demand for maritime-surveillance missions, an official said.

San Diego-based General Atomics a few years ago developed a maritime-configured variant of the Predator B, known in U.S. Air Force parlance as the MQ-9 Reaper. The Homeland Security Department has purchased a few of the so-called Guardian drones, complementing its existing fleet of nearly a dozen or so MQ-9s that monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I like to think that the Predators that monitor the terrestrial border have been so effective that it's pushed seaward the flow of drugs," Christopher Ames, director of international strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., said this month during an interview at the Paris Air Show. "You want greater transparency in the maritime domain."

The maritime version of the unmanned aircraft comes equipped with an automatic identification system to spot large ships and a center pod capable of carrying powerful maritime surveillance radars such as the Selex SeaSpray made by the Italian defense contractor Finmeccanica SpA and SeaVue radar made by the American defense contractor Raytheon Co.

While the drone, at less than $20 million apiece, is far cheaper than manned maritime patrol aircraft, General Atomics has also begun offering a cheaper alternative to perform such missions in the form of a dedicated maritime mode on its Lynx synthetic aperture radar.

"We created another maritime mode so that you don't have to incur the expense," Ames said. "You may not need the open-ocean, powerful-great-distance views. You maybe settle for the littorals of the Mediterranean, where you don't need 260-mile looks. And so now, you can fly the aircraft on a terrestrial mission and you can re-task it in the air for a maritime mission if something pops up that's of interest. That's a development."

The government of Italy has begun using the technology to help rescue migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in makeshift boats. Several hundred migrants, mostly from Libya, were believed to have drowned April 19 when the overcrowded ship they were riding in capsized about 70 miles off the Libyan coast.

Italy is at the vanguard of such rescue efforts, with its navy and coast guard ships having rescued more than 130,000 migrants in 2014 as part of a program called Mare Nostrum, according to a recent report in The New York Times. The government credits the success of those efforts in part to its Predator-series fleet of drones.

"MQ-9 proved instrumental in our efforts to coordinate resources and rescue migrants whose boats were incapacitated and were dangerously floating adrift," an unnamed Italian air force official said in a company release. Drone imagery of the vessels allowed navy and coast guard commanders "to understand how many victims were aboard the boats and the extent to which the boats were damaged, and enabling us to vector in the appropriate Navy vessel to perform the rescue."

The maritime mode works much like the ground radar, Ames said.

"You get a contact, you push a button, the system software will redirect the electro-optical infrared to look at the contact, so you can get an idea quickly of whether they're in dire straits or not," he said. "This is a wonderful capability for maritime search surveillance because it's inexpensive, it's long-endurance on those missions where you're combing the ocean.

"You don't need nine people in a P-8 or a P-3 to perform that mission," he added, referring to the U.S. Navy's maritime patrol aircraft. "And it could be used as a trip wire for a follow-on manned aircraft. It really scales the resources more smartly. There's a growing interest in maritime surveillance."

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