Low cost spy plane takes off as military budgets squeezed

BALTIMORE, Maryland Wed Aug 29, 2012 10:12pm EDT

BALTIMORE, Maryland (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman Corp, maker of the B-2 spy plane and the Global Hawk unmanned drone, will demonstrate a smaller, cheaper surveillance plane this week it hopes will be attractive to budget conscious U.S. law agencies and foreign countries.

The new Air Claw system marks Northrop's latest effort to expand its overseas revenues and move into new non-military markets at home given the expected decline in U.S. military spending after a decade of sharp growth.

The new aircraft adds high-tech sensors to the rugged, single-engine Quest Kodiak aircraft, including a wide-area surveillance camera that captures images over an area that measures 4 miles by 4 miles and has already been used to help make arrests on the southern U.S. border.

"Air Claw will cost millions less than other aircraft that are out there," Tom Kubit, a senior executive with Northrop Grumman's technical services sector, told reporters at a small private airport outside Baltimore.

He said Northrop has built over a dozen special mission planes for the U.S. government over the past 21 years, but developed the new plane as a low-cost alternative given the mounting budget pressures facing the U.S. government and an estimated 48 countries that use such aircraft.

Northrop will demonstrate the Air Claw to U.S. law enforcement agencies this week.

The plane, which can take off and land on short, unimproved runways, had its first flight in July, and generated strong initial interest at two U.S. air shows this summer. The company is hosting a series of demonstration flights for potential customers across the country through October, Kubit said.

He said Northrop would market the new plane for use in border patrol, law enforcement, disaster response and special operations missions.

He declined to give an exact price, but said the new plane, equipped with a standard package of sensors, would cost about the same as a Pilatus PC-12 built by Pilatus Aircraft of Switzerland, which sells for just under $4 million, and millions less than the King Air, both without surveillance equipment.

Northrop is also pitching a new remotely-piloted unmanned plane, Sandstorm, that it says would dramatically lower the cost of training pilots to fly drones such as Predators and Reapers, giving them more opportunities to practice and possibly averting damage caused by many hard landings of the unmanned planes.

Sandstorm, which can be flown via the Internet, could also be used for testing payloads and some limited operations, said Karl Purdy, manager of new unmanned aerial system programs for the Northrop technical services division.

Each new aircraft and its control system costs less than $100,000, Purdy said, calling the program the brainchild of Don Bintz, one of the first pilots to fly the Predator drones that are built by privately held General Atomics.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Michael Perry)

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