Canadian Defence Review
November 21, 2011
Title: Discovery Air Innovations set to make waves
Sub-title: New division seeks to develop opportunities for
Hybrid Air Vehicle military applications.
Discovery Air has long had a reputation for undertaking bold initiatives in Canada’s aerospace and defence sector. The company’s 142 aircraft and 850 employees are deployed across the country in a wide variety of operations ranging from airborne combat training, to forest fire control, maintenance, repair and overhaul and helicopter fleet management.
So when UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), limited began looking for a “launch customer” for its new Commercial Heavy Lift program, Discovery seemed like a logical choice. “It was a perfect fit,” says Paul Bouchard, Discovery Air Innovations’ president and chief executive officer. “We have the expertise to handle non-traditional services such as craft like there, which offer precision hovering and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities. That means that they don’t need conventional runways to operate, which makes them perfectly suited to meet the transportation needs of remote sites such as those in Canada’s North for defence and other applications.”
HAV, as its name implies, manufactures Lighter-Than-Air vehicles (LTAs), which used to be known as “blimps.” However technology has evolved considerably since then. Today’s HAVs have helium-filled hulls and are powered by vectored thrust engines, but improvements such as advanced fabrics, control innovations and simulation, provide current models conducting heavy lift and surveillance operations with considerable advantages over previous designs.
A promising start
HAVs already come packed with considerable credibility. The US Army for one has been highly impressed. Last year it awarded a USD $517 million contract to HAV and Northrop Grumman, to develop an LTA variant called the Long-Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV). The LEMV, which will be used primarily for long-term surveillance purposes, can fly at elevations of over 20,000 feet for up to 21 days straight. As part of the initial “launch customer” deal, Discovery Air Innovations gets options to purchase multiple aircraft. A definitive purchase agreement is expected to be concluded in 2012 and the first operational heavy-lift models will be produced and delivered by 2014.
However Bouchard isn’t waiting for final paperwork to market HAVs here in Canada. “It’s the right transportation solution for what the world needs right now,” says Bouchard. “Demand for remote area services is rising and we want to get in on the ground floor.”
Discovery Air Innovation’s initial interest in the HAV can be traced in part to experience that it acquired servicing the mining sector, which has been increasingly looking to conduct extraction in remote areas, due to growing resource scarcity. “The easy stuff has all been found,” says Bouchard. “The remaining opportunities are lower grade resources, those in areas where land travel is hazardous, or in remote zones, that are hard to reach either by land or air due to the absence of air strips or navigable roads. HAVs are thus the perfect solution for companies that have to work under those constraints.”
According to Bouchard, the Hybrid Air Vehicle’s capabilities are perfectly suited for remote area operations, particularly in Canada, which has a particularly challenging geographic environment. “They carry 50 tons and can land anywhere, which means that users do not have to build roads or other infrastructure and they thus set a far lower environmental footprint than alternate delivery forms,” says Bouchard. “That makes them a perfect solution for transportation issues related to Northern development, heavy lift for isolated communities, use on humanitarian missions, (say as a mobile medical and dental facility, moving from community to community in faraway areas), as well as long endurance sovereignty patrol assignments.”
When humanitarian missions get dangerous, the HAV capabilities become even more obvious says Bouchard. “They would have been useful for supplying forward operating bases in Afghanistan or other unprepared areas,” notes Bouchard. “You could also imagine the United Nations operating four or five of these for disaster relief. That’s particularly true in areas such as Somalia, where the fact that there are so many inter-modal transfer legs, means that world food programs lose as much as 30 percent of all deliveries.”
Discovery Air Innovations: disruptive technology
Helping develop the HAV’s potential is a perfect initial mandate for Discovery Air Innovations, itself a new unit at Discovery Air, which was set up earlier this year to develop new opportunities for other group units. According to Gary Venman, Discovery Air’s vice-president (business development, government services) the division’s main focus is on obtaining select international government and commercial customers for the delivery of profitable specialty aviation services.
“There was general recognition within the Discovery Air group that individual business units are so busy developing and excelling in their current spaces, that they don’t have the time and resources to seek out opportunities in other countries,” says Venman. “DAI’s job is to take care of that.”
Initial staffing at Discovery Air Innovations will be moderate, with between 15 and people assigned to its facilities, located in a techno-park in the Montreal suburb of Pointe Claire. However according to Venman the staff structure is scalable, and is structured to grow rapidly as the unit takes on more work.
A quick glance at the global defence market indicates that there are a slew of opportunities for a company with Discovery Air’s capabilities to add value in an increasingly cost conscious environment. For example Discovery Air Innovations can showcase its Top Aces division’s highly-successful Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS) partnership with Canada’s Department of National Defence.
Through CATS, Discovery Air makes available to the Canadian Air Forces an “adversary force” of unarmed jet fighters, flown by experienced pilots. Sixteen Top Aces Alpha Jets, located in Halifax, Bagotville, Cold Lake and Victoria, provide airborne combat and electronic warfare training services, while four Westwind craft provide a training platform for radar electro-optical and infra-red guided systems operators.
Relations with the Department of Defence are excellent says Venman, who’s comments are supported by the fact that the CATS program has been renewed annually for many years. That said, he has great hopes of building a more permanent arrangement. A Request for Proposal for long-term CATS services by the Canadian government closed on November 15th, and, while there are no guarantees, as the incumbent bidder, Discovery Air clearly has an edge. The company is also looking for opportunities to extend the ASD model in other defence areas, including possibly in upcoming Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) initiatives.
Yet while the benefits of Alternate Service Delivery models like CATS are increasingly more well-known and understood here in Canada, Venman believes that there also may be considerable potential in international markets in the ISR front, for HAVs and ASDs, particularly in Southeast Asia but also in Eurore, the Middle East, Africa and Australia.
“We work with customers to get them what they want,” says Venman. “We don’t just want to sell our own products like say a manufacturer does. We could take say a King Air, and equip it with radar, Electro-Optical, Infra-Red (EO-IR) sensor pack or an ESM package and then operate the whole thing for the client,” says Venman. “Just look at what we have right now, Challengers, to Kings to Dash-7s to jets and helicopters. We are not married to any one solution.”
“Canada clearly has an edge over other countries in terms of advancing public private partnerships on the defence side,” adds Venman. “However we believe that we can take what we have learned here to deliver similar solutions elsewhere.”
“Governments are faced with increasingly tight budgets, so solutions like CATS, (in which Top Aces own the aircraft), mean that they do not have to lay out cash to get access to air capabilities,” says Venman. “In addition, the fact our Aggressor Force operates independently, provides a much need edge to training missions and our ability to attract retired pilots, provides the Department of National Defence a new way to maintain access to valuable, hard-to-get talent.”
Logic dictates that in a time of tightening budgets, that there would be a huge potential demand for outsourcing services, particularly in the United States where the current Congressional ‘Super committee” fiscal negotiations are signalling that the defence sector be hit hard.
However Venman urges caution: “If the US Air Force for example deals with cutbacks by attempting to keep as many flying hours as possible for its own personnel and then trims everywhere else it possibly can, then we will have to fight tooth and nail for all our opportunities,” says Venman. “However if they decide to favour a capabilities-based approach, that is based on getting a bigger bang for their buck, then we would have ideas for them”
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