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Why UAS Commercialization Matters To Textron

By Patrick C. Miller | October 30, 2014

There’s a marketing slogan on Textron Inc.’s website which says: “The power of Textron is the power of our brands.” It’s another way of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Mention Textron to someone and you might get a blank stare. But if you instead named some of Textron’s products and the companies that make them, you’ll likely find someone familiar with something Textron makes.

There’s Lycoming aircraft engines, Bell helicopters, Cushman golf carts and Jacobson lawn mowers, not to mention aircraft made by Beechcraft, Cessna and Hawker—brands that account for more than half of all general aviation aircraft flying.

Textron also makes marine and land systems for the military, automotive supplies, power tools and specialized vehicles, as well as training simulators for both business and military purposes.

There’s also an Unmanned Systems unit of Textron Systems which manufactures and flies the Aerosonde UAV. While the Aerosonde might not be a household name, it’s been around since the late 1990s, having flown more than 6,000 hours on intelligence-gathering missions for the military and research missions for government and academia.

The Aerosonde features a UAV purpose-built engine made by Lycoming. In 2006, it set a world endurance record in its class by flying without refueling for more than 38 hours. Textron has been flying the Aerosonde in restricted military airspace on a daily basis at Fort Pickett—a Virginia National Guard airfield—providing training and the opportunity to test payloads.

So you might think that with all Textron has going for it and the years of operational experience Textron Systems has with the Aerosonde, opening the national airspace for commercial UAS use might not be a big deal—and you would be wrong.

Textron Systems' David Phillips, vice president for small- and medium-endurance UAS, explained it this way: “Volumes in the military don’t get engine manufacturers too excited, which is why we don’t have too many purpose-built engines in this industry for UAS.”

If you think having military and government contracts is enough, think again.

“It’s an eye toward the commercial market and the much larger volume potential that the commercial market provides that’s really the end-game for unmanned systems,” Phillips said. “It’s not much different, quite frankly, than a lot of other technologies that started in the military and transitioned to commercial.”

And that’s why Textron Systems is patiently watching and waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve a certificate of authorization that will allow the Aerosonde UAV to operate in the national airspace.