By Andrea Shalal-Esa
Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) expects to double its production of new tethered unmanned surveillance airships to eight a month by June under a $142 million Pentagon order for Afghanistan.
The company also has worked with a unit of Kaman Corp (KAMN.O) to develop an unmanned cargo helicopter that it hopes to sell to the military for as little as $10 million a piece.
Both projects are a direct response by Lockheed to the Pentagon's drive for lower-cost unmanned systems to fight insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and show the company's determination to play a key role in the unmanned systems that the Pentagon now favors.
Stephanie Hill, Lockheed's vice president and general manager for ship and aviation systems, said the Pentagon first contacted the company in January, asking how many of the white helium-filled blimps it could build, and how quickly.
In response to the urgent need for more of the Persistent Threat Detection Systems (PTDS), Lockheed and its suppliers began working on the new airships and buying needed materials on their own even before they received the contract, she said.
"It was an amazing ramp up," she said in an interview at the annual Navy League conference. The latest order brings the total number of PTDS systems under contract to over 30.
It calls for Lockheed to build 17 airships for rapid deployment to Afghanistan, where they will be used to keep watch for enemies and people planting roadside bombs.
Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter last month said he would dramatically boost use of airships as "eyes in the sky" over Afghanistan to protect the growing number of U.S. troops.
Equipped with sophisticated cameras and the ability to stream images to U.S. bases on the ground, the airships help track any activity that could jeopardize the troops.
The unmanned aircraft are a more affordable way to maintain surveillance than more-expensive unmanned airplanes, which are also being deployed in Afghanistan in large numbers.
The 35-meter tethered PTDS airship can stay aloft for 30 days, even in extreme weather, and can carry up to 500 pounds of sensors. It has been in use by the Army since 2004.
Hill said Lockheed hoped to sell more of the airships to other U.S. government agencies, including possibly the Department of Homeland Security for border patrol, and some foreign countries were also interested.
Lockheed also has high hopes for the unmanned helicopter it is developing with Kaman. Recent tests showed the helicopter can drop 6,000 pounds of cargo by parachute.
Lockheed and Boeing both developed unmanned cargo helicopters as a response to the an urgent operational need identified by the Pentagon last year, and approved in January.
"The intent is basically to have a flying truck," said Dan Spoor, vice president of aviation systems for Lockheed's missions systems and sensors unit. He said delivering supplies to troops by trucks was dangerous in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, given the threat of roadside bombs.
The helicopters also were far cheaper to maintain, since they need just two man hours of maintenance for each hour of flight, compared with 12 hours for manned helicopters, he said. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Carol Bishopric.