Canada is thinking seriously about buying a Northrop Grumman high-altitude drone to keep watch over its vast polar regions, which are becoming more accessible due to climate change.
Meanwhile, Italy is apparently moving to put missiles on its Predator B unmanned aircraft, built in Poway by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
The developments illustrate the increased attention San Diego’s unmanned aircraft builders are giving to foreign markets.
In an era when U.S. Department of Defense spending is expected to tighten, the region’s two big unmanned military aircraft builders may be able to look abroad for business — provided, of course, that Congress and the Pentagon approve.
And provided that foreign customers don’t go to foreign vendors.
While the foreign market for drones is expected to grow rapidly, U.S. firms can also expect competition from overseas drone builders, particularly the French, the British and the Israelis. Potential competitors include United Kingdom-based BAE Systems; Sagem of France, part of the Safran group; and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.
“The landscape becomes crowded in the MALE arena,” wrote Ron Stearns, research director for G2 Solutions, referring to medium-altitude, long endurance aircraft very much like the kind General Atomics Aeronautical Systems makes.
Teal Group predicts big growth in foreign drone procurement over the next 10 years.
The Virginia-based research firm predicts world unmanned aerial vehicle purchases, excluding the United States, will rise from $1.24 billion in 2013 to $3.91 billion in 2022.
In fact, Teal predicts that by 2022, foreign customers will finally spend more than the Pentagon — which will spend an estimated $3.79 billion on UAVs that year.
(The figures do not reflect the expected growth of unmanned combat aircraft.)
International markets will show “very strong growth,” said Phil Finnegan, senior analyst with Teal Group. While European markets will grow “to some extent,” the analyst predicted “real growth” in Asia and Latin America.
Some of the biggest recent news comes from the polar region.
Northrop, which writes code for its unmanned military aircraft in San Diego, said that it and a Canadian unit of L-3 Communications will work on “Polar Hawk,” a version of the high altitude Global Hawk spy plane for the Canadian market. Jim Zortman, site manager for Northrop’s local UAV unit, said there is no sale as yet.
During the recent NATO Summit in Chicago, NATO representatives signed a deal with Northrop Grumman to buy five Block 40 model Global Hawks for $1.7 billion. The aircraft will be equipped with specialized ground surveillance electronics. The deal also covers initial operations and maintenance.
Zortman also reports that Australia “is very interested” in Northrop’s maritime version of the Global Hawk.
Italy was one of the first overseas customers for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The Mediterranean country flies both Predator and Predator B aircraft, according to company spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz, who said Italy has two Predator B’s on order.
Military leaders have considered augmenting the mission of Italian drones in places such as Afghanistan.
Citing unnamed sources and members of Congress, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that Italy may put weapons on its Predator fleet, with U.S. permission.
Kasitz reported the United Kingdom wants to buy more Predator B aircraft.
Additionally, GA-ASI has come up with an export model of Predator called Predator XP, designed for surveillance and reconnaissance only. It does not carry weapons. GA has made sales calls but, as yet, there are no buyers, Kasitz said.