If you want to know what the future looks like, sit down and have a talk with Roy Minson. He's the senior vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems at Aerovironment, the manufacturer of nearly 85 percent of the Department of Defense's unmanned aircraft fleet--not the Reapers and Predators that so often make headlines, but small aerial systems that make up the vast majority of the DoD's 7,000 strong unmanned aircraft fleet. That is to say, business with the defense sector is good at Aerovironment. But today Minson is talking almost exclusively about non-military applications for the company's hardware--him, and just about everybody else at the nation's largest robotic systems show.
That's partially because I'm peppering him with questions about civilian drone applications, but our conversation was bound to wander in this direction. The DoD certainly isn't going anywhere, but defense spending cuts hang over this place like the sword of Damocles. The term for next year's mandated defense spending cuts, "sequestration," can be overheard around the exhibit hall here at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual North American trade show like some kind of new and derogatory slang.
But even as Congress prepares to twist the Pentagon's money spigot down to a trickle, it tossed the unmanned systems industry a bone earlier this year by mandating that the Federal Aviation Administration integrate unmanned aircraft--first small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), but eventually larger ones as well--into the domestic airspace by 2015. First responders can already obtain clearance to operate small drones. And as a result, the tenor of the whole conversation here has shifted.
Defense is still the overarching theme at AUVSI, but people are talking a whole lot as well about local law enforcement, public safety, site security, forestry, pipeline inspection, mining operations, infrastructure safety, border security, oil and gas exploration, farming, and countless other potential applications for unmanned systems here at home. The civilian market for domestic drones is opening up, and a high-tech industry in need of a customer is stepping into what was previously a void--at least in the United States.
"We're looking forward to addressing the civilian and public safety sectors," Minson says, echoing what I've heard from just about every executive, engineer, or PR rep I've sat down with for the past few days. Minson describes the range of ways Aerovironment's small UAS have served in non-military roles outside the U.S.--tracking animals for wildlife agencies, guiding ice breakers in the Arctic, monitoring for airborne radiation in Japan in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster--and how feedback from those roles has informed the company's thinking on non-military applications.
It's a common thread here. A range of companies I spoke with--most of them defense companies in the popular consciousness--have been exploring applications beyond the military in countries that, by industry standards, aren's as woefully behind the curve on unmanned systems regulations as the United States. Names like Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Honeywell, as well as a hundred more smaller firms you likely haven't heard of (yet).
Entire states (or their top aerospace universities) have shown up--Ohio, North Dakota--to throw their support behind the industry and demonstrate their desire (often in the form of educational and economic incentives) to grow the unmanned systems sectors within their borders. I sat down with the state of Oklahoma's Lt. Governor Todd Lamb and its Secretary of Science and Technology Stephen McKeever for a quick conversation about the role of government in this new economic and regulatory environment. The takeaway: This technology will augment everything that Oklahoma does best, from its strong oil and gas production industry to agriculture to its many pre-existing aerospace interests, which can then export the technology around the country and world. An investment in UAS technologies is an investment in just about every other industry in the state as well as in an emerging economic sector that stretches far beyond its borders, a sector in which it hopes to become a leader.
So what will America's drone-enhanced future look like? The personalization of the UAS--the niche unmanned system--is coming, Minson says. But it's coming later. We'll first see unmanned systems doing what comes most naturally to them: public safety and law enforcement missions that are easy lateral transitions for military technologies. The mission profile of a first responder UAS--enhancing situational awareness, locating targets in a chaotic environment, streaming data from places too dangerous for human presence--is almost exactly that of most military UAS (Hellfire missiles not included).
Look no further than Procerus, a UAS recently acquired by Lockheed Martin when it bought the company of the same name in January, at just about the same time Congress ordered the FAA to get busy opening American skies to UAS. Lockheed demonstrated the rapidly-deployable, surveillance-oriented quadrotor all week at AUVSI, but it did so with an emphasis not on Marines in Afghanistan but on police officers and emergency crews here at home. Similarly, over at the Aerovironment booth, the camera-equipped Qube quadrotor has the word "POLICE" stenciled on its side and is marketed toward local law enforcement. These UAS are not destined for Helmand Province, but for the trunks of police cars and firefighting vehicles here in the States.
On the show floor, we saw submersible robots aimed at everything from harbor security to oceanographic science, surface maritime robots augmented with fully automatic weapons but also simply with cameras, beacons, and scientific instruments. There was at least one aerial drone fitted with a drill for coring ice samples in frozen areas, presumably for oil and gas exploration as well as for climatological and atmospheric science missions in polar regions. One unmanned helicopter was fitted with the kind of simple crop spraying equipment you could find at Tractor Supply. This relatively simple hack is now a consumer item, a UAS swiftly converted into a crop-dusting drone. By merging two mature and relatively unexciting technologies, we now have something that could be huge for farmers--and for the domestic unmanned systems market.
The point being that at a trade show that has been ruled by its near-singular military customer for decades, diversification is spiking. The unmanned systems world is seriously branching out. There are still a lot of challenges to be met, especially when it comes to integrating remotely piloted and semi-autonomous or autonomous aerial vehicles into an airspace already cluttered with manned aircraft, but you might be surprised how hard--and in some cases for how long--some of the most highly respected names in aviation and robotics have been working on solving these problems. Top people at avionics-maker Rockwell Collins' UAS group told me how confident they are that we can safely put large unmanned aircraft and manned aircraft into shared airspace in a reasonable time frame without rewriting the book on aircraft operations. They've been at this for years. We are not starting from scratch.
Necessity will mother invention in this space, and that's the most exciting thing. At AUVSI 2012, we see a lot of vehicles--platforms that can carry payloads robotically, or autonomously in many cases. Most companies are keeping their payloads modular so they and their customers can customize them as they find new applications. Those applications are all around us, and they extend far beyond infrastructure inspection, public safety, and site security. The most interesting robot at AUVSI this year is the one nobody has built yet. "Everyone is going to want something different," Minson says. "The most interesting things are the things we can't think of yet."
Every video producer is anxiously watching this technology for obvious use in filming. Current models still fall short of really stable and controllable use for cameras. Some would argue it's already here, but seasoned directors still see a difference in big manned platforms for really dramatic footage. Shouldn't be long though (I hope). If I'm wrong, link me up!
When the mainframe IBM BLue takes control of these drone robots, "Hello Skynet"!
Civilian application: someone insane from the general population straps a bomb onto a UAV, uses an algorithm to predict the trajectory of an airplane so that a collision is unavoidable, KABOOM!
I'm just wondering when Police Dept's are going to have problems with the theft of these devices.
Wait wait, crop duster?
All that has to happen is a run-in with civilian aircraft resulting in a crash/injuries/death, and this domestic plan will stall like a Cessna full of Sumo wrestlers.
Why the scare tactics? I've owned one of these for over a year, they are just like any R/C airplane, cameras can be mounted and there goes your high level of hysteria, out of control!! Anything can be used to spy on us (you).
It's best you be afraid of what Obama and his selected henchmen will do if he is elected a second term, you ought to even be afraid of what they are doing as we speak, look into it before it's too late!!
Please keep your political opinions to yourself. This is a website of Science & Technology.
Also at the AUVSI Tradeshow Unmanned Vehicle University featured its now programs. You can earn an accredited Masters or Doctorate Degree in Unmanned Systems Engineering. UVU also offers short courses in UAV Fundamentals, To learn more visit the website at www.uxvuniversity.com
Actually, this is not (first) a website of science and technology; it's a left-leaning rag with obvious political bias. Nevertheless, there are those of both political persuasions that enjoy pure science. Hopefully PS will return to this ageless posture that has objectively guided science for eons.
Had an idea yesterday in the shower. You take a quad copter, strap it to a helium balloon (sort of a hamburger shape for less lateral wind resistance), make the balloon have enough lift so that the rotors have just enough power to force the assembly down. Put a tank and refill pump on it. Then connect it to a computer and a dozen or more vehicles just like it, configure it in a 'swarm' mode, point it to a forest fire and a source of water then turn 'em loose! Vehicle goes to lake, sucks up water, flies to fire, dumps water, repeat until fire goes out.
We need a system like this right now!
This makes me feel safer in absolutely no way. Soon I'll have to worry about drones over my house violating my privacy? Well, screw it, we already shoot skeet at the range.
Anyone with an RC plane can already build a "suicide drone" with resonable range using nothing more than a smartphone (skype for visuals), the RC plane, and almost any triggered, volitile, or timed explosive.
Plane, 2 smartphones, and bomb - less than $2,000.
These drones will be MUCH more exspensive, durable, and capable - things that no terriorist will want or care about.
They will, however, offer some benefits to large, well funded law enforcement agencies (as well as possibly other large corporate uses like resource exploration).
If you are worried about your privacy, then the people you want to keep this from is Google - four low altitude sweeps and street view becomes a rendered 3D "walk around your property" view for the world to see.
I say that drones can have a much larger use than just simple minded stuff such as security or skynet.
Let's get a friggin taco drone to bring me luch dangnabbit! Waited on my order for three hours...
Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.
In all seriousness, drones need to come home. They can do plenty more than we say they can. Imagine a thousand drones swarming and helping to build a building, lifting supplies and such in an easier fashion.
Unmanned is the future, and it is epic.
Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.