Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal
A new unmanned aerial vehicle designed in New Mexico and slated for assembly here is on display for the first time this week at the annual Unmanned Systems North America conference in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Silent Falcon, created by Albuquerque-based Silent Falcon UAS Technologies, is a small, ultra-light UAV designed to stay aloft longer than other drones its size, operate quieter than other aircraft for stealth operations and provide 360-degree video imaging of terrain.
“This is the first time outside of our company that people can see what we’ve done,” said CEO John Brown. “We have a really cool airplane and a very advanced system overall.”
Silent Falcon launched in 2010 as a Bye Aerospace subsidiary, but it’s now an independent company.
Its new craft sells for between $250,000 and $300,000. It could be used for international defense and intelligence operations, and for domestic public safety-related missions, such as monitoring wildfires or patrolling ports and international borders.
“As of today, we’re taking orders,” Brown said from the conference trade show.
The company is targeting international defense markets and an emerging domestic market for drones.
The Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace and defense analysis firm, projects the global market for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will grow from $5.9 billion today to $11.3 billion annually by 2020.
The domestic market will also grow as the Federal Aviation Administration opens U.S. airways for drones, beginning with mission-specific deployments by government agencies, such as police surveillance, emergency response and remote monitoring of sensitive infrastructure. In May, the FAA released new guidelines to streamline the process for public agencies to operate drones under 25 pounds.
“For small UAVs, I think that market is close to exploding,” said Leonard Ligon, UAS subject specialist and senior UAS analyst with Atkinson Aeronautics and Technology in Virginia. “Law enforcement is starting to buy these things and work within the (new) legal framework.”
The FAA is also beginning a selection process for six new UAS flight-test ranges, said Steve Hottman, interim director of New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory, which currently operates the nation’s only FAA-certified flight test center.
“So far, at least 30 states have expressed interest in bidding on that,” Hottman said.
Still, as markets build, Silent Falcon faces a lot of competition. Today, more than 1,100 UAS companies operate globally, including about 600 in the U.S., Ligon said.
George Bye, Silent Falcon chairman and CEO of Bye Aerospace Inc. in Colorado, said he expects Silent Falcon’s unique design and capabilities to provide a competitive edge.
The new plane includes solar panels on its wings and lithium polymer batteries for energy storage, allowing it to fly up to 14 hours nonstop, Bye said. Its slow-rotating propellers make it quiet for stealth operations. A proprietary, gimbal-based imaging system offers a broad field of view. Three attachable wing spans permit short and long flights. And it’s made of sturdy but light carbon composite materials to reduce weight and allow operators to carry it directly to a mission’s point of flight.
“We think all of that combined makes it a unique package,” Bye said.
But with so many companies developing UAVs, the Silent Falcon’s “uniqueness” is hard to assess, said Ligon, who provided consulting services to the company on domestic market prospects.
Until now, Silent Falcon has operated in stealth mode, notwithstanding an announcement last fall of its activities and decision to locate in New Mexico. Now, with design and testing finished and patents filed, the company chose a high-profile, public launch at the Las Vegas conference, which attracts about 8,000 people from 40 countries annually.
Brown, an Albuquerque native, said aerospace research and development at New Mexico’s laboratories and universities drew Silent Falcon to the state. The company is headquartered at the Verge Building, a startup incubator Downtown. It will eventually establish assembly operations in Albuquerque, but for now, the Silent Falcon will be built at Bye Aerospace in Colorado.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal