Small Drone Maker Aerovel’s Acquisition to Bolster Airbus’ Tactical Unmanned Systems Business

Defence Industry

Washington: Airbus said its newly finalised acquisition of drone maker Aerovel will allow it to bolster its tactical unmanned systems business and could help it compete for US Defence Department programs such as Replicator.

Rob Geckle, the CEO of Airbus’ space and defence division in the United States, told reporters the acquisition of Aerovel will add the Flexrotor small tactical drone to Airbus’ portfolio. The Flexrotor can take off and land vertically as well as provide intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities on land or at sea.

The French firm signed an agreement in January to acquire the US business, and announced the acquisition was finalised.

Geckle called Flexrotor a “unique technology,” whose affordability, range and flexibility makes it well-suited for expeditionary missions and to sell to the Defence Department an “affordable mass” capability.

Flexrotor’s ability to take off and land vertically means it can operate without a runway, Geckle said. A two-person crew can assemble one of the drones in 10 minutes, he added, and then vertically launch it from a 12-square-foot area without the need for launch or recovery equipment. It also has autonomous capabilities, is attritable — meaning it is inexpensive enough that the military could afford to lose some in operations — and in 2017 set a flight endurance record for its class when it flew 32 hours nonstop.

Geckle pointed to the Navy’s November 2023 experimentation with Flexrotor on the guided-missile destroyer Stethem during operations in the Gulf of Oman as an example of how it could be used by the military.

Geckle said the DoD’s nascent Replicator program — an effort to field thousands of drones to help counter China — is “really tantalising” as a potential area where Flexrotor could compete. He also sees opportunities to sell Flexrotor to the Navy, Coast Guard and Army — primarily in the maritime world, he said, but not exclusively.

Flexrotor will continue to be built at Aerovel’s former facility in Bingen, Washington. Airbus hopes to use its experience with engineering and manufacturing other unmanned aircraft will help accelerate the development of Flexrotor and expand the Bingen facility, Geckle said.

Geckle expressed confidence Airbus can apply its work on other autonomous capabilities to further refine Flexrotor. Geckle declined to say how much Airbus paid for Aerovel, but described it as “a fair price” that would immediately strengthen Airbus’ position in the market.

Ali Dian, Aerovel’s CEO, and Tad McGeer, its founder and chief technology officer, will remain with Airbus, as will the rest of Aerovel’s more than 30 employees, Geckle said.