An Aerovel Flexrotor unmanned aerial vehicle is inspected prior to launch on the flight deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) in the Gulf of Oman, May 31, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Elliot Schaudt)

WASHINGTON — Airbus is targeting the fast-growing US market for low-cost attritable drones after the recent purchase of American manufacturer Aerovel, whose flagship product has been tested by the US Navy, the CEO of Airbus’s US-based defense unit said today.

The deal hands the aerospace giant the reins for Aerovel’s Flexrotor drone — a small, uncrewed aircraft designed to find targets of interest and conduct surveillance missions. Airbus, which announced its plans to buy Aerovel in January for an undisclosed sum, finalized the acquisition on Tuesday.

One “really tantalizing” near-term sales opportunity for the Flexrotor is the Pentagon’s Replicator program, which aims to field thousands of uncrewed aerial, maritime and ground vehicles by 2025, said Rob Geckle, CEO of Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, during a roundtable with reporters.

He added that Airbus would also likely respond to a recent request for information on drone capabilities that could replace the Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout uncrewed helicopters.

“I think that is a compelling capability right now given the demand signals for affordable mass and portable UAS in denied environments,” he said. “I would be surprised if there’s not a strong interest once we’re able to submit a response to this RFI.”

Geckle added that he sees other opportunities with the US Navy, Coast Guard and Army, as well as outside the United States and with civil customers.

The 55-pound Flexrotor needs only a 12-foot square area to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, and can operate either above land or over sea, according to Airbus. It can operate for periods of more than 30 hours at a time with sensor payloads that can be swapped out to meet customer’s requirements, according to Aerovel.

The Navy has conducted a handful of tests using the Aerovel-made drone. Navy Task Force 59 — which conducts exercises at sea using uncrewed tech —  launched and recovered Flexrotor onboard a US Coast Guard ship operating in the Arabian Gulf in December 2022. Then, in November 2023, the Navy used Flexrotor and other UAS to track Iranian Navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy ships during patrols in the Strait of Hormuz, Flying Magazine reported.

In buying Aerovel, Airbus could be taking a page out of the playbook of its biggest rival. Aerovel was founded by Tad McGeer, who also was one of the founders of Insitu — a small dronemaker known for its ScanEagle UAS. Boeing purchased Insitu in 2008 and now operates it as a wholly owned subsidiary.

McGeer and Aerovel’s current leadership team, which includes many Insitu veterans, will remain at the company, Geckle said.

Aerovel will also continue to produce the Flexrotor in Bingen, Washington, and retain its current workforce of about 30 employees. Geckle added that Airbus would likely “grow and expand those operations,” though not necessarily in the Bingen area.