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Shadow Spy Plane Company Releases Unmanned, Video-Controlled Sea Vessel

AAI hopes for Navy use of unmanned vessels at sea

by Andrea K. Walker

AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley has developed an unmanned surface vessel that can send devices deep into the ocean to detect mines and other threats. The company, a division of Textron Inc., hopes the Navy will choose the technology to be deployed on its littoral combat ships.

The company, AAI, has carved a niche in the unmanned, spy vehicle world, which has become increasingly imperative as a method of warfare that doesn't risk the lives of soldiers. And AAI is one of several Maryland companies that has benefited from an increase in defense spending.(Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / August 30, 2010) The company behind the Shadow spy plane, which is used to pick up counterintelligence over the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, is taking its technology to the seas.

AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley has developed an unmanned surface vessel that can send devices deep into the ocean to detect mines and other threats. The company, a division of Textron Inc., hopes the Navy will choose the technology to be deployed on its littoral combat ships.

The company has spent the past few years developing the 39-foot-long vessel - testing it in waters for more than 500 hours - and says it is ready to be brought to market. The spy vessel can perform tasks such as launching weapons and performing surveillance and reconnaissance.

David A. Phillips, AAI vice president of business development and advanced systems, described spy vehicles as doing the "dirty, dull and dangerous" missions, and said the boat is a natural transition from the other products it makes. "We've taken a lot of the control technology and brought that over ... to fit with the unmanned surface vessel," he said.

The company has carved a niche in the unmanned, spy vehicle world, which has become increasingly imperative as a method of warfare that doesn't risk the lives of soldiers. And AAI is one of several Maryland companies that has benefited from an increase in defense spending.

The Department of Defense funneled more than $17 billion to contractors in the state in the past fiscal year. Local contractors working for the Navy brought in slightly more than Army contractors last fiscal year - nearly $7 billion, a figure that grew more than 60 percent from the previous year.

Many other companies make spy boats, but at least one analyst said AAI has a good chance of getting more business from the military because of the success of the Shadow. AAI's technology also allows operation of many different unmanned vehicles at once, giving it another leg up, said Stephen E. Levenson, a managing director at Stifel Nicolaus.

As with its spy planes, AAI's unmanned boats are controlled from video consoles under a version of its "One System" technology. The console can control several vessels at a time and can be used even with unmanned vessels not built by AAI. It also can control unmanned planes and ground vehicles.

"They would be in a good position to get business related to any unmanned system," Levenson said. "Whether it's one that they produce or, through the use of their ground control system, somebody else's."

AAI partnered with Baltimore-based Maritime Applied Physics Corp., an engineering firm that built the aluminum body of the boat. AAI and MAPC demonstrated the boat recently during Baltimore Navy Week for Adm. John Harvey, commander of Fleet Forces Command.

The boat, which AAI said can hit a top speed of 28 knots with a range of 1,200 miles, zoomed across Baltimore's harbor, almost skimming the water. It launched sonar devices into the water that scanned the bottom and its surroundings, sending images to a video console on land.

Because of rules about unmanned boats in the harbor, there was a man on the vessel during this mission. But Phillips said he was just along for the ride, and the vessel was operating by itself.

The vessel can operate under waves that are up to 2.5 meters high. It can survive in waves of up to six meters. If it flips over, it has the technology to right itself, the company said.

Phillips said the Navy currently uses helicopters or manned vessels for mine searching and surveillance in the sea. Unmanned technology is cheaper and more efficient, he said.

The company did not disclose the cost of the unmanned vessel for competitive reasons.

The littoral combat ship, among a family of high-speed surface ships, is designed to operate in coastal waters. It can quickly react to threats such as coastal mines, submarines and terrorists on small, armed boats.

Phillips said he expects the Navy to begin accepting bids for the unmanned vessels in the next year and that his company's chances are good.

"We have the most versatile system," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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