Military unmanned systems market more than ever represents a COTS market


COTS CONFIDENTIAL. Every month the McHale Report will host an online roundtable with experts from the defense electronics industry – from major prime contractors to defense component suppliers. Each roundtable will explore topics important to the military embedded electronics market. This month we discuss the Unmanned Systems show held this month in Atlanta and the market outlook for these systems.

This month’s panelists are: Malcolm Quon, Vice President, Unmanned Systems, Elbit Systems of North America; Rich Connors, Director of Sales, North America, Data Device Corp. (DDC); Eric Simon, Head of Innovation, and Stephane Blondin, Head of Product Management and Marketing, Presagis; and John Bratton, Solutions and Product Marketing Specialist, and Greg Donahue, Director, Marketing Programs, Mercury Systems.

MCHALE REPORT: What trends did you see emerging at the AUVSI event this month?

QUON: Today it is all about the payload and what capability you can give to warfighters, such as sensor processing for better imagery. Payloads will become more modular so that the payload itself is plug and play. For example one could swap out a daytime operations payload for one with nighttime sensor capability.

CONNORS: U.S. regulatory agencies need to adapt current regulations to allow further development of this technology and the industry in general. The application of unmanned systems in areas outside of defense/surveillance missions can stimulate both significant economic growth and societal benefit; but only if national governments can find a way to allow unmanned systems to safely coexist with commercial and civil aviation.

BRATTON: John McHale hit this well in his video report, where he says the show began with military leadership and has evolved to include more commercial technology, with “military applications being another user of the best commercial technology.”

Exhibitors ran the spectrum from components to turnkey platforms vendors (with various state business development centers and venture capitalists thrown in). Applications are becoming better defined and more elegant solutions are emerging. More on-platform processing capability will be required to drive sensor exploitation and platform autonomy.

DONAHUE: There has definitely been a trend over the last three years in moving from just a military event into one with a much larger commercial presence. As the recent wars wind down, military demand for unmanned platforms has entered a “maintenance” mode where they are continuing to explore new platforms, sensor packages, and missions, but at a much slower rate than in the recent past. In addition, potential commercial applications are booming. And you see this in both the number and type of firms at the show. Particularly telling about the growth potential here is the presence of both venture capital firms and economic development groups from several U.S. states.

SIMON & BLONDIN: We saw increased use of small form-factor sensors, improved sense and avoid technology, and loads of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) offerings.

MCHALE REPORT: Where does commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology fit in with unmanned systems?

SIMON & BLONDIN: Industrial unmanned systems manufacturers and service providers will certainly have less budget and human resources than military organizations, so we expect that they will be relying on COTS products.

QUON: A lot of the stuff we do is COTS and the reason is that there really isn’t any military technology anymore. Everything is COTS. In the 1960s and 1970s the military was a leading driver of technology, but now they are consumers of technology. A clear example of this would be camera technology, which is driven by the consumer market for cell phones and other applications, not the military. In this regard the military is always one step behind Moore’s Law. Everything has become commercialized – build it first and then try and find a market for it.

CONNORS: COTS technology will help speed development of new unmanned systems and mission-specific applications, but cost will need to be addressed if defense COTS products are to be considered for volume commercial and civil applications.

BRATTON: For defense we see sustained value and demand for low size, weight, and power (SWaP), secure, high-performance embedded computing (HPEC) processing subsystems. We anticipate RF/microwave and digital to become more integrated, and an even greater need for processing power will be required for vehicle autonomy and payload capability.

DONAHUE: As for finding the same success in other markets, this likely will be mixed. Some firms with low-cost solutions with limited capabilities may find success in some commercial markets, particularly in routine imaging applications.

MCHALE REPORT: Is the military still the driver of the unmanned system market or has it moved beyond the defense world to commercial and civil applications?

DONAHUE: The military is still the driver for higher end systems and advanced payloads. They are also driving the development of sense and avoid technology. However, the commercial market is now driving the need for much less expensive systems that also have limited capabilities. Often, many of these commercial systems are designed for a single application such as crop dusting or electric power line right-of-way monitoring. So there is a bit of a bifurcation in this market.

SIMON & BLONDIN: Not yet as the military is still the primary user of unmanned systems technology.

QUON: The military wave as the driver of unmanned system technology is flattening out. However, use is increasing among government agencies and law enforcement and will be especially useful during natural disasters, as unmanned aircraft can spot survivors and bring in water and supplies.

CONNORS: Military and security applications will still continue to drive technological development in the industry, but commercial/civil applications will begin to push the industry to lower cost, lower power consumption solutions.

BRATTON: Military spending remains the largest in the UAV market segment, and is especially applicable in regards to larger, more capable platforms. The industry may have passed an event-horizon. The affordability and SWaP performance of processing systems, advances in power sources, and some relaxing of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions is enabling the industry to evolve quickly.

MCHALE REPORT: Aside from defense, what industry do you see embracing unmanned systems technology five, even ten years from now?

BRATTON: Wherever humans don’t want to or cannot go and where dollar efficiency can be achieved. These applications include infrastructure inspection (such as pipeline, power distribution, structure); farming (such as spraying, crop monitoring); terrain mapping; search and rescue; law enforcement/border security; crowd monitoring; and commercial use by Amazon/Google-types of organizations.

DONAHUE: In addition to what John Bratton lists, we are already seeing unmanned systems being used in disasters/emergency response situations such as the recent earthquake in Nepal. Robots were also widely used after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 to try and find survivors buried in rubble.

SIMON & BLONDIN: We see unmanned systems finding use in government and homeland security applications; man-made or natural disaster prevention and management; facilities, energy, and critical infrastructure (CI) monitoring and inspection; earth sciences; communications broadcast markets; transportation, delivery, and logistics; mining, precision agriculture and farming; construction sites; road, railroad, and waterway inspection; chimney, tank, tower, pipe, and other elevated structure inspection.

QUON: Down the road when unmanned technology becomes a true consumer product and even a commodity, you will see imagery and data gathered by UAVs provided as a service one subscribes to, such as a farmer in in the Midwest might subscribe to a subscription service where an unmanned aircraft flies over and periodically does a hyper spectral analysis of his soil.

It’s all about the data and how it is distributed. The market is immature right now but when it gets to the service or leasing of UAV payloads point it will be seamless and no one will care which platform it’s on as it will be about the data.

CONNORS: Agriculture, civil construction, local police, site security, and news gathering organizations are most likely to embrace and deploy unmanned systems in the next decade.