Inside PAE's unmanned aircraft strategy

PAE might be best-known for logistics and facility management work worldwide, but it's also been building an unmanned aircraft strategy to complement its core.

PAE Inc. has been long known for its logistics and facility management work for the State and Defense departments in overseas locations, and at the same time has been shaping an unmanned aerial platform and services business the company views as in its core.

They have been doing so through the PAE ISR joint venture that PAE is majority owner of with minority partners American Operations Corp. and Battlespace Flight Services. PAE and AOC in particular have been collaborating on unmanned programs for nearly a decade.

PAE ISR’s flagship product is Resolute Eagle, an unmanned aerial vehicle designed for long-endurance flights. It also is reconfigurable to vertical-takeoff-and-landing from the standard approach depending on length of mission and requirements.

The reconfiguration ability of Resolute Eagle is a key given in the overseas locations PAE and the PAE ISR venture operate in, PAE ISR’s Beth Beach told me in an interview at the venture’s Ashburn, Virginia headquarters.

“When you think about what customers need, their missions evolve, their requirements evolve,” said Beach, vice president of business development.

“One day, the standard configuration may be particularly fine for the operation but the next day they’re going to be operating out of a mountainous terrain and they need the VTOL," she said. "So within an hour, you can put on the VTOL booms, you can flash the autopilot to now tell it is in the VTOL configuration… and you’re ready to launch.”

Resolute Eagle is a main piece of what PAE ISR provides to customers like the Navy, with whom the venture is one of four awardees on a $1.73 billion contract for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services to support unmanned aircraft.

Beach told me the Army and Air Force, plus prospective foreign military customers have also indicated interest in Resolute Eagle.

PAE ISR does not limit itself to just offering customers its own product however and takes a platform-agnostic approach. Beach said that if the requirements call for it, the venture will work with the customer to get the unmanned platform it wants.

Resolute Eagle can carry payloads of around 75 pounds but at times more weight is needed for the mission, Beach told me.

“We can provide services separate and distinct from operation of our own aircraft to support missions using a third-party aircraft (as) a sub to PAE,” Beach told me. “There may be circumstances where a larger platform or a smaller platform may be more applicable.”

That is what PAE ISR does now. But both the backstory for how PAE entered the unmanned market and the current narrative of how they tie that venture into its core services work also illustrate one example of how many government services companies are looking to incorporate product-oriented business.

At $2.57 billion in annual revenue, PAE Inc. has nearly 20,000 employees in more than 70 countries across seven different continents.

“There’s definitely potential there for a synergistic relationship between the services and the aircraft,” said Beach.

“When you start to look at countries that are building their unmanned capability, they’re going to need the logistics piece of it, not just the aircraft piece. So one of the things we look to do is rely on PAE’s logistics expertise to be able to support us wherever we go.”

That includes locations where PAE Inc. already performs expeditionary logistics and helps construct sites for customers. That can include locations that are difficult to access, or are either in or near a conflict zone.

“There’s an ISR component that the Resolute Eagle can fulfill relative to that,” Beach said.

So how did PAE Inc. become an unmanned platform manufacturer through a joint venture? The roots trace back to 2013, when PAE acquired substantially all of the former Computer Sciences Corp. Applied Technology Division.

From there, PAE helped set up the PAE ISR joint venture but as a minority partner to start. PAE then became the majority shareholder of the joint venture nearly a year ago.

Beach said the joint venture has leveraged PAE's corporate infrastructure and supply chain expertise to go along with the latter’s global footprint.

And like so many other contractors, PAE sees an unmanned market that only seems to be showing signs of growth.

“There is a lot of energy behind unmanned vehicles whether they be ground, aerial or sea-based right now,” Beach said. “People see the value of blending them with manned programs… to be able to accomplish some of the missions that you don’t necessarily want to put humans in harm’s way to do, nor do you have a need to do.”

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