Payloads, throwable robots highlight decent Unmanned Systems trade show

Above average is how I would rate this year’s AUVSI Unmanned Systems show, which returned to Washington, DC, last month. With all the uncertainty surrounding future government spending on military technology, there was decent attendance and a good deal more optimism compared to other military events I’ve been to this year, such as the AUSA Winter Meeting in Fort Lauderdale, FL, which resembled a ghost town.

However, reviews among the exhibitors were mixed. Larger system integrators and primes found this year’s event better than the 2012 show in Las Vegas, NV, mostly because in Washington, DC, they are closer to their customers. Others, such as suppliers of computing and navigation technologies for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) payloads, thought their luck was better in Vegas in terms of leads. Yet, as is the case with most military events, one solid lead pays for the show, so even those who griped were looking to sign up again next year.

My favorites at the show this year included the iRobot 110 FirstLook small, throwable robot, and Dreamhammer’s Ballista control software for controlling multiple Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) and payloads from one console. The FirstLook only weighs 5.4 pounds and is 10 inches long, 9 inches wide, and 4 inches tall. No matter how it lands after a toss, it uprights itself in seconds. It can investigate hard-to-reach areas, such as tunnels, and provide video surveillance. iRobot engineers also looked into adding a small gun to it, but there are no firm plans to weaponize the robot at this time. In our July/August issue, we covered how Dreamhammer and Lockheed Martin collaborated on a NAVAIR demonstration where operators monitored and controlled multiple types of UASs and their ISR payloads.

Payloads are what this show has become about in recent years, whereas in its early days, it seemed more about the UAS airframes. Mike Blades, Senior Industry Analyst, Aerospace & Defense, with Frost & Sullivan, told me at the show that, “A common mantra in the airborne ISR world is ‘every platform a sensor, and every sensor networked.’ As troop strength is decreased and budgets reduced, military users are becoming more reliant on UAS payloads. As a result, UASs are often viewed simply as the platforms that deliver those payloads. DoD ISR requirements worldwide are driving the need for more capable sensors and more persistent platforms. Therefore, companies that can provide either the cheapest, most capable sensors, or the most reliable and persistent platforms, stand to benefit even in this time of constrained defense spending.”

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Figure 1: This chart from Frost & Sullivan tracks Israeli Total Defense Exports versus UAS Exports, Global, 2005-2012.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Blades also shared another fact that might surprise some – the U.S. is not the world leader in UAS exports. That honor belongs to Israel. “While Israel is the largest exporter, the U.S. still makes the most UASs by far,” he says. “UAS exports have accounted for nearly 10 percent of the country’s total defense export industry, and this is expected to increase. However, Israel does not have a built-in domestic market like the DoD in the U.S., so they are forced to market heavily internationally. From 2005 to 2012 Israel exported about $4.6 billion USD in unmanned aircraft while the U.S. did about $3 billion USD. Total defense exports will likely increase steadily, as Israeli companies form strategic partnerships and continue aggressive marketing campaigns with countries in growing UAS markets, such as Africa, APAC, and South America.” Blades noted that his data does not include China, as Frost & Sullivan does not have access to aircraft spending data in China.

For more on military technology market trends from Frost & Sullivan and other analysts, see the Military Market Analysis article on page 12. This month we also have a section on Rugged Computing – starting on page 32 – and Managing Obsolescence starting on page 44. This September issue is also our annual Resource Guide, so please be sure to take a look at the directory starting on page 57.

On another, more bittersweet note, September also marks the last issue for Managing Editor Sharon Hess. Sharon is leaving after eight years to explore another career path. She will be missed by all of us at OpenSystems Media and by those in the industry whom she worked closely with on contributed articles. Sharon has been a key member of our staff and a big part of our magazine’s success, and my right hand since I took over the magazine in 2011. I have no doubt she will succeed and thrive in her next calling.

John McHale jmchale@opensystemsmedia.com