- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2005

A small Germantown company today will roll out an aircraft that will be able to fly with pilots — and without them.

Don Ryan, chief executive officer of Proxy Aviation Systems Inc., hopes the military, Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security take interest in Skywatcher, the company’s unmanned aircraft system.

The Skywatcher will be introduced in a ground display at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International show at the Webster Field Annex of the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md.

The aircraft has passed manned flight tests and will be tested in unmanned flights in late August, Mr. Ryan said. The U.S. Air Force is sponsoring the company’s testing.

“The military, although they’ve used unmanned aircraft vehicles for a number of years, haven’t obtained the ability and capability derived from unmanned aircraft vehicles,” Mr. Ryan said.

Pentagon officials were not available for comment.

Proxy Aviation is filling what Mr. Ryan called a void in the field of unmanned aircraft. Currently, no aircraft are built to switch between having a pilot and not having a pilot, he said. Pilots are required to be in aircraft that fly over populated areas. But on reconnaissance missions, he said, an unmanned aircraft such as Skywatcher is preferred because it does not risk a pilot’s life while flying over enemy territory.

Mr. Ryan, a former president of the defense sector of aerospace equipment company Smiths Aerospace, said he hoped Skywatcher will fill that void.

He sought L Capital Partners, a New York investment company, to fund the startup venture. Mr. Ryan declined to reveal how much money was invested in the project.

Proxy officials consulted with military officials to figure out what kind of an aircraft the industry was missing.

The biggest focus has been on getting information, such as aerial views of battlegrounds, more quickly.

Proxy’s Skywatcher system can operate 12 unmanned aircraft simultaneously on autopilot computers, Mr. Ryan said. Officials on the ground use a digital map to tell the system which area they want to see, and the closest aircraft responds. People on the ground can see real-time images without depending on a pilot.

A crew of 18 is required to keep the fleet operating for 14 days. A comparable manned system requires 45 persons, Mr. Ryan said.

“It dramatically reduces the workload, the time delays … and results in lower costs and increased operations,” he said.

Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, said Proxy probably is the only company with an aircraft that can be used in both manned and unmanned missions.

“Most companies are going for one segment or another,” Mr. Davidson said. “A new unmanned model is rare.”

Unmanned aircraft are still in infancy, he said. Most companies are removing the pilot features to make an aircraft unmanned instead of starting a model from scratch, as Proxy is doing.

“We didn’t want to just build something that was faster or better than existing products,” Mr. Ryan said.

“It’s hard to make a major leap in technology from an existing platform.” Mr. Ryan said. “We solved these problems [with a new product].”

Proxy Aviation has 25 employees but expects that number to double by next summer. Mr. Ryan said his company likely will have contracts by then, but he declined to provide names of potential customers. Once the Skywatcher is displayed, customers will flock to it, he predicted.

Now that its project is nearly complete, Proxy Aviation has moved from Delaware to Germantown to be closer to the national security clients with whom it hopes to work.

Looking back to the company’s founding in 2003, Mr. Ryan said he was confident about the chances he took putting his time and money into a company with an idea but no products and no customers.

“That’s what makes it fun,” he said. “We just want to see it fly, both figuratively and literally.”

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