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Socom seeks drone services to collect intel

By Howard Altman
Published: October 22, 2014

Warren “Skip” Parish has already punched the first Wednesday and Thursday of December into his calendar.

The Sarasota-based drone innovator will be in Tampa, at the Doubletree Tampa Airport Hotel, where U.S. Special Operations Command will be meeting with representatives of companies that can supply it with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) services via unmanned aerial systems.

Socom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, put out a notification Oct. 15 on the Federal Business Opportunities website. It contains no details about why it needs the services and Socom officials won’t elaborate.

But Parish said he has a pretty good idea of what the commandos are looking for and access to the equipment needed to help them get a better view of the battlefield and adversaries.

“They could be used in Syria or Iraq certainly,” said Parish, chief technology officer and board member of Unmanned Aerial Technologies of Perth, Australia. “I have no way of knowing what Socom is anticipating, but it could be used in either of those places, yes. Or on the Ukraine border. Or for drug interdiction in the Caribbean.”

Socom officials would not comment on the notification other than to point out that it is for services, not a system acquisition.

The Socom notification is a big deal for the drone industry, said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group, an aerospace defense consulting firm.

“From the industry perspective this is important, because there are very few programs out there,” said Finnegan. “Companies are eager not just to get the business, but to get a blue chip customer like Socom.”

The notification calls for ISR services provided by mid-endurance drones using contractor-owned and operated systems. Those systems have to be operational and not in the development stage.

To Parish, that means drones that can fly at least 15 hours at a time and equipped with a wide array of non-lethal equipment like day and infrared cameras and sensors to gather signals and electronic intelligence.

Parish said that when he meets with Socom officials, he will talk about drone systems that his company has purchased from Israeli manufacturers and modified.

“I have some Israeli birds that we will represent,” he said. “Israel has a robust (drone) industry.”

Socom officials are offering one-on-one meetings with interested companies to discuss the technical and performance requirements, according to the solicitation.

The meetings have been scheduled three months before a current 25-month contract for ISR services is set to expire.

In February 2013, Socom inked a deal, worth a maximum $190 million, with Insitu Inc. of Bingen, Washington, to provide ISR support. Insitu officials did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

The wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing had already been working with Socom for nearly four years, providing “agile and responsive and uninterrupted services with our ScanEagle system,” Insitu Vice President of ScanEagle Programs Curt Chesnutt said in a statement on the company webpage .

The ScanEagle drone has a 10.2-foot wingspan, weighs just under 50 pounds and can carry a maximum payload of 7.5 pounds, according to Insitu. It is a runway-independent system that can fly for more than 24 hours, at a maximum altitude of nearly 20,000 feet and a top speed of 80 knots.

Parish, an inventor who developed and patented a method of remotely detecting explosives by using a laser to detect vapors, would not divulge the names of the Israeli companies whose systems he uses.

In its notification, Socom said it anticipates posting a draft request for proposals by late November. Those interested in attending the industry day have to pre-register, according to the notification. And any information or ideas shared during the industry days, which are unclassified meetings, may be used to develop the ultimate solicitation for the ISR services.

With a long history providing drone technology to the military, government organizations and the private sector, Parish said the industry day concept is good for both Socom and taxpayers.

“Hats off to the guys at Socom,” he said. “It was a smart move to have industry days. It allows more competition, gives them lower costs and greater tactical ability.”

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