July 31, 2010: Building on its success with unmanned recon aircraft (Predator, Reaper, Avenger), General Atomics is now selling a complete package of sensors, communications and control software and hardware for those who cannot use unmanned aircraft, or want to do it cheaper using second hand manned aircraft. The Griffin Eye system can be installed in a wide range of small, twin engine commercial aircraft.
This sort of thing has been going on for a long time in the military. For example, the American RC-12 and MC-12 are militarized versions of the Beech King Air. The army began using the Beech aircraft as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But it was realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute, and that led to dozens of MC-12s.
The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft that, as a UAV replacement, carries a crew of four (two pilots and two equipment operators). Some of the sensors are operated from the ground. This MC-12 can stay in the air for up to eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (about twice the time per sortie), but good enough to help fill the demand. The MC-12 has advantages over UAVs. It can carry over a ton of sensors, several times what a Predator can haul. The MC-12 can fly higher (35,000 feet) and is faster (over 500 kilometers an hour, versus 215 for the Predator.) The MC-12s cost about $20 million each, more than twice what a Predator goes for. Griffin Eye is cheaper than that, much cheaper when second hand aircraft are used.
Griffin Eye is particularly attractive for border and coastal patrol duty, where unmanned aircraft are not allowed because of the potential for collisions with manned aircraft. In the next decade, UAVs are expected to get around these prohibitions with new sensors and flight control software. But in the meantime, the all weather radars and cameras of Griffin Eye will have plenty of potential customers.