Firm Markets Drones for Commercial Use

A New York City-based company develops unmanned planes that capture detailed Earth images and communicate with satellites

small New York City-based start-up is positioning itself to be a player in the nascent remote sensing business, an industry expected to be worth several billion dollars by the turn of the century.

Skysat Communications Network Corp. says its system can take spy-quality images from space without expensive satellites, risky rocket launches and the complex operations of satellite-based systems.

The company has developed an unmanned plane that will take more detailed images than the proposed commercial satellite remote sensing systems due in the next couple years from companies such as Lockheed Space Imaging, GDE and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences. The drone-like aerial vehicle will also provide commercial telecommunications services.

"The Skysat platform will be able to provide an invaluable service in the telecommunications and imaging arenas," said Martin Fife, chairman and CEO of Skysat. Considering the two-year-old firm is already selling its stock to the public and it doesn't even have a prototype yet, observers are optimistic that Skysat has the business know-how to succeed.

It's rare that a company that doesn't even have its test vehicles built yet would have already completed an initial public offering, said Burton Edelson, director of the Institute for Applied Space Research at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a Skysat board member. But Fife, who sits on the board for Dreyfus mutual funds, "knows his way around Wall Street," Edelson said.

If the technology development goes as well as the financing has, Skysat will be the first to offer commercial unmanned planes similar to the drones used by the U.S. military for reconnaissance. For help developing and demonstrating the plane, Skysat has turned to McLean, Va.-based Cambridge Research Associates, which has a base of defense R&D experience. Cambridge and Skysat expect to have the vehicle ready for commercial test by mid-1996 and commercial production of the planes would begin in 1997.

One major market that Fife says Skysat is targeting is the remote sensing business. Skysat is positioning itself to fill a gap between the detailed images that can be taken with aerial photography and the synoptic pictures from satellites. "We have a better mousetrap for certain uses," Fife said.

Skysat images could be used when there isn't a large area to be captured, such as mapping transportation networks and other land use planning, mapping land forms and other major geological units, and for estimating crop yields, timber acreage and assessing damage from fire and other disasters. Skysat's gas-powered plane, which will have the wingspan of a 747 and the weight of an automobile, will stay aloft for about two days snapping images from about 65,000 feet above the Earth.

Although he hadn't heard of Skysat specifically, William French, executive director of Bethesda, Md.-based American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, said the technology could compete with satellites in the imaging business, especially for customers who want to use the space data for mapping and building geographic information systems, French said. But the trick, he said, is coverage. A two-day mission won't give you the total picture of a region, he said, and satellites will.

The $40 million Skysat system will consist of the ground station, two subspace platforms and spare parts. According to the company, Skysat's system is a less expensive alternative to satellite imaging, but one representative from the remote sensing industry questioned Skysat's calculations, suggesting "it's real easy for anyone to say that, but the proof is in the pudding."

In addition to Earth imaging, the unmanned aerial vehicle will also be able to coordinate communications with a new generation of communications satellites, such as low-Earth-orbit satellite systems that are expected to be flying before the end of the century.

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