General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) knows that some aircraft are better off without human pilots. The company is a designer and manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with names like Predator, Avenger, and Gray Eagle, as well as airborne intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) sensor systems, including the Lynx multi-function radar and the Highlighter sensor for detecting improvised explosive devices. The company also manufactures solid-state digital ground control stations and provides UAS training and field operations support services. Additionally, it is developing lasers for rangefinding and marking targets. GA-ASI is an affiliate of privately-held General Atomics.
Demand for UAS (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV) is on the upswing given the latest defense spending trends. The US Department of Defense announced that it is refocusing funding from combat warfare equipment to unmanned systems, advanced sensors, and other high-tech systems that support the US and its allies' ongoing military activities in the Middle East. Funding is being channeled toward products that boost the military's speed, flexibility, precision, and responsiveness. Based on this trend, forecasts estimate that the UAS market will double in the next 10 years.
GA-ASI's flagship product, the Predator, was named by Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine as one of the top ten aircraft that changed the world. It is one of the most combat-proven UAS and is currently used in Afghanistan to pick up enemy communications and transmit video feeds to ground troops and operations centers on the other side of the globe. The company also got the nod from the US government in 2010 to sell the Predator to Pakistan. The export version for Pakistan is a stripped-down model with no armament.
In general, the company's UAS are less expensive to operate than manned aircraft and are able to remain in the air for longer periods of time. Other advantages include the fact its UAS are versatile -- they can be outfitted with missiles, turning them from drones into combat aircraft. These attributes make the aircraft highly attractive to the foreign and domestic agencies that use them, including the US Air Force, US Navy, US Army, NASA, the UK Royal Air Force, and the Italian Air Force.
Not just for war zones or military applications, UAS are also being used to monitor borders, piracy on the high seas, and natural and manmade disasters. US Customs and Border Protection is using the Predator B UAS to patrol the US-Canadian border. It also used the remotely-piloted Predator B to stream video and show mapping of areas affected by one of the largest wildfires in Arizona state history. North of the border, GA-ASI signed an exclusive teaming agreement with CAE in 2011 to offer its Predator B UAS to help meet Canada's security needs.
Even with its advanced technology and an impressive clientele, GA-ASI knows it has healthy competition for market share. Northrop Grumman, for instance, makes the larger Global Hawk for high-altitude, long-endurance missions; GA-ASI tends to serve the medium-altitude, long-endurance market segment.