LONDON - L-3 Communications has taken the wraps off a modified King Air 350 ER turboprop, which it says offers overseas customers an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability in advance of the U.S. Air Force's Project Liberty MC-12 aircraft but without many of the export clearance hang-ups associated with selling sophisticated spy platforms.
The U.S. company used last weekend's Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at the Royal Air Force base at Fairford, England, to debut its Spydr aircraft to air force chiefs and others from around the world who gather for the annual event.
Bob Spivey, vice president of special programs for L-3's Mission Integration Division, said if necessary the Spydr aircraft can avoid some of the issues created by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) by using technology sourced from outside the U.S.
Italy's Selex Galileo announced July 18 it was partnering with L-3 to offer its e-scan PicoSAR synthetic aperture radar as a payload option.
The L-3 executive said they were also talking to German electro-optical/infrared turret provider Zeiss.
Discussions with other potential suppliers were also underway, but Spivey declined to name them at this stage.
"It doesn't matter whether we put an [L-3] Wescam or Zeiss ball on Spydr. It's the same capability, just a different source of technology. Using technology like the PicoSAR makes it exportable and gets us out of some of the ITAR issues," Spivey said.
The privately funded Spydr development is pitched at domestic and export customers in defense and civil markets looking for a lightweight, affordable ISR capability, Spivey said.
Nations big and small are looking for ISR capabilities for maritime and land surveillance, civil duties with the police and other roles that won't break the bank.
King Air platform builder Hawker Beechcraft brought a special missions demonstrator of its own to the Paris Air Show last month, and Spivey reckons Boeing and Raytheon will also be among those competing in the expanding market sector.
The Spiral 1 development aircraft shown by L-3 at RIAT featured a fuselage-mounted Wescam electro-optical/infrared turret, a fuselage pod with a 100-pound payload, a tactical data link, satellite communications, a full signals intelligence system and other sensor options.
Spivey said the aircraft was returning to the U.S. after the tattoo to have Spiral 2 developments installed - principally a 2-foot extension of the aircraft's nose to allow a second sensor turret to be fitted - before heading for the Dubai Air Show in November.
Further technology developments are planned within the year when the aircraft goes into a planned Spiral 3 upgrade.
Potential customers in the Persian Gulf region include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to L-3 Chief Executive Mike Strianese, speaking at the Paris Air Show in June.
Spivey said L-3 and others had already given the Saudis their pitch to supply ISR aircraft for possible border patrol duties. The executive said the machine, which is effectively a next-generation aircraft beyond Project Liberty, is also creating interest in South America, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, southern Africa , the U.K. and the U.S.
Britain already operates a Raytheon-supplied King Air special mission aircraft known as the Shadow.
Spivey said the Spydr is about three generations ahead of that aircraft, which was purchased by the British as an urgent operational requirement for campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mark Johnson, L-3's vice president of next-generation ISR special programs, said the key design themes were flexibility and modularity to allow the company to tailor Spydr to meet the differing demands of customers.
L-3 has delivered dozens of special mission King Air-based twin turboprops, including MC-12 aircraft, to the U.S. Air Force but is not restricted to using the platform.
"While we love the airplane, we are not limited to using it," Spivey said. "The King Air just happens to be our test airframe."
The executive listed the C-27J, EADS CASA aircraft and the Dash-8 as other potential airframes.
"We are more talking about mission system than platforms," Spivey said. "[The King Air] just happens to be a real nice turbo aircraft which gets up to 35,000 feet. In the maritime surveillance business, you may need something like the Dash-8."
Spivey said the modular mission system also allowed a move down to smaller aircraft than the King Air, and the company was already doing some lighter-than-air and special operations-type work.