Saturday, November 14, 2009

Seabird Aviation Jordan has high hopes for Seeker aerial surveillance platform

By Murdo Morrison

Six years after being established as Jordan's first airframer, Seabird Aviation Jordan (SAJ) believes its Seeker SB7L-360 aerial surveillance platform is poised for a breakthrough in its target markets of the Middle East and Africa. The lightweight, bubble-canopy single-pusher may look quirky, but its simplicity, versatility, field of vision and value will see it succeed in the region's growing but budget-conscious homeland security sector, according to SAJ, a division of the state-owned King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau.

Only seven examples of the Seeker - built at a facility at Amman's smaller Marka airport - have been delivered since the company was formed, including two to the new Iraqi air force. But the aircraft is now being offered with a wider suite of equipment and general manager Amjad Abu Ali says: "We are optimistic for 2010." SAJ has contracts for two aircraft with two unnamed governments and the Jordanian air force is considering creating a squadron of six Seekers. There are eight aircraft in various stages of production at the factory. "Our target is to deliver 12 a year," he says.

SAJ is a joint venture between KADDB and Seabird Aviation Australia (SAA), the company that developed the platform, and an Iraqi Kurdistan holding company, Dabin Group, has also become a major investor. Although SAA owns intellectual property rights to the Seeker, SAJ is licensed to develop and market its own versions of the aircraft for 20 more years.

The aircraft can be fitted with a range of surveillance equipment attached to hardpoints in the fuselage and underwing. Because pilots sit ahead of and under the wing and have 180° vision to their feet, thanks to the helicopter-style cockpit, they can see much more on the ground than they would from a fixed-wing aircraft. An uprated 180hp (134kW) Lycoming engine with a new three-blade variable-pitch propeller (replacing a two-blade, fixed-pitch version) adds a further 200kg (440lb) of payload.

At about $1 million fully equipped, the Seeker is about one-third the price of a comparable helicopter, says SAJ. It also maintains that despite a comparable range and payload, "for one [General Dynamics] Predator [unmanned air vehicle], you can have 28 Seekers". With running costs of about $100 an hour, operating the aircraft is also cost-effective, with "anyone with 10h experience able to fly it" and a general aviation technician capable of maintaining the airframe. In fact, the Seeker's closest competitor is probably the Diamond Aircraft DA42 MPP, a very different design.

As part of KADDB - set up in 1999 by the new king to develop a domestic defence manufacturing capability to support Jordan's armed forces - SAJ is an important flagship project to prove the country can become an aerospace player in its own right. The company employs 45 people, but that is "bound to increase" as deliveries ramp up from 2010, says Abu Ali. Jordan's pool of highly skilled but reasonably low-cost labour means it makes sense to build the entire airframe - from tubes and sheet metal to finished product - in-house.


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