Sensor processing, commercial drone applications, COTS use hot at Xponential unmanned systems show

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 market and trends at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s () Xponential show held this month in New Orleans, which focused on this technology.

This month’s panelists are: Mark Littlefield, Head Vertical Product Manager, Defense, Kontron; Chip Downing, Senior Director Business Development, Aerospace and Defense, Wind River Systems; Scott Unzen, Market Development, Omnetics Connector Corp.; and Mike Southworth, Product Marketing Executive, Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions.

MCHALE REPORT: This month AUVSI put on their put on their Unmanned Systems show -- now named Xponential -- in New Orleans. What trends did you see emerging at the event?

LITTLEFIELD: There was tremendous interest in on-board for smaller platforms. This type of processing need is typically seen on larger platforms so the trend with unmanned is definitely integration on smaller and smaller platforms. We also noticed quite a bit of innovation occurring overall with commercial unmanned companies developing a full range of to match or solve specific problems/requirements. Their trending needs focused on packing radios and sensors into new packaging with an overall requirement for ruggedized platforms. They also were interested in platforms that are [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] free for commercial use. Many of the defense contractors that are well suited to supply unmanned platforms don’t necessarily offer systems that are ITAR free.

DOWNING: There are three fundamental trends I noticed this year at AUVSI Xponential:

First, commercial evolution: We have watched unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) transition from experimental to military to entry-level consumer/commercial to today’s critical commercial platforms that collect advanced Internet-of-Things () . My first AUVSI conference in 2006 in Orlando and since that first event, I’ve chatted with hundreds of AUVSI attendees about FAA RTCA DO-178B and DO-178C airborne certification and had modest interest. This year is the first time where attendees at our booth wanted to discuss certification, and had active development programs to push a platform for FAA certification to move their unmanned services outside of the 333 Exemption and into controlled airspace. This proves to me that next year’s show will be about unmanned commercial services above the “333 Crowd,” expanding beyond basic flying functions to solving real business problems, especially those that go beyond current 333 Exemption constraints.

Secondly, we have turned the corner on innovation. Typically, and other agencies fund R&D programs to get new technology off the ground, and then industry picks up the baton and leads. This is certainly happening in platforms, where commercial unmanned innovation is now surging ahead in certain application and mission systems, where small UAVs have very good flight and autonomous control characteristics, and where many of these UAVs have already eclipsed systems funded by military programs, in terms of capability. Large UAVs and unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) are still the domain of large defense suppliers, but this will change over the next two years as larger, commercial transport UAVs emerge with new designs or modified manned designs. This will also drive a more positive, complementary cycle of growth in certified avionics platforms. So we are again seeing the remarkable benefits of government investments in new technologies bootstrapping new solutions and industries, and then having industry pick up the innovation ball and provide new commercial services – with the bonus that military platforms will be able to use some of this new technology at affordable prices, and without deep R&D funding.

The third point is that small suppliers still have a chance in this market. Although many large defense suppliers are well entrenched in this market, and remarkable commercial success stories like DJI dominate certain segments, there’s still plenty of room for innovation, especially with commercial applications and services that collect, analyze, and distribute IoT data and derived intelligence.

SOUTHWORTH: Likely driven by the explosive growth of the commercial drone market, it appeared that AUVSI’s Xponential conference attracted a far greater number of commercial suppliers this year. I recall that many of these same vendors also exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year within AUVSI’s member area. Industrial applications, such as mining and agriculture, were just a few of the many commercial uses targeted by these suppliers. I also met with several platform systems integrators at XPONENTIAL, who thought they traditionally built military unmanned systems, are now planning to bring commercial versions of their products to the international commercial market.

Not surprisingly, many suppliers were introducing higher performance, -optimized technologies designed to reduce the power consumption, physical footprint, weight, and cost for deploying mission processing, network, storage, video surveillance, and related capabilities.

UNZEN: This year the was more blending of commercial and military of technologies and product use with less focus on full Mil-Spec requirements and more emphasis on form, fit, and reliability as a set of criteria. Product-wise, there are more new small module and electronic circuit cards and less large systems. I also saw a continued trend on combining signal types and power inside cable and connectors with an increased emphasis on EMI going beyond to RFI and full secure electronics.

MCHALE REPORT: One of the alleged reasons behind the show name change is that the potential commercial market for unmanned systems will eventually dwarf the military market for drones. What non-military applications did you see trending that week?

DOWNING: This is the year that mission systems and business application solutions began to dwarf the core UAV flying platform – IoT data collection, storage, and analysis now define platform value. The most popular applications at Xponential 2016 were video, inspection, and surveillance solutions – where the video application controls the autonomous operation of the airborne platform, allowing it to follow a given track or follow an object in motion. Of course the most obvious use of this technology was filmmaking, but the higher value use would be precision agriculture and other business solutions that integrate the IoT data collected from multi-spectral cameras and other sensors to provide advanced business intelligence that is difficult, dangerous, or too expensive to perform using traditional technology.

We tend to not put a direct dollar value on real-time, precise, military situational awareness, which is saving the life of a soldier in the field or ensuring the success of an operation; from a commander’s standpoint this information has extreme high value and is priceless. But certainly the widespread use of drone technology in business and personal operations will create a very large market for equipment, application, and service providers, and this market will be served by new commercial suppliers as well as traditional aerospace and defense companies. The next ten years will define how we use these airborne platforms in our personal and business lives. I expect many of these solutions will integrate UAV data with other IoT data in the , where business intelligence will be generated and delivered for profit. So the name change was quite appropriate and demonstrated market foresight.

UNZEN: The ones I see doing well beyond the military drone industry are commercial safety and technology companies. There is also demand for geo-physical management systems that are not dependent upon GPS as well as micro- positioning control and pinpointing for mapping, positioning, etc.

It was also fun to see more young engineers in their first jobs attending the event and developing their own standards of what to use and buy. We will likely see more enthusiastic, young engineering talent embrace the drone market as expands from the military into various commercial markets.

SOUTHWORTH: Exhibitors at this year’s conference were targeting a broad range of commercial applications, including security, , , , and crop monitoring for agriculture, just to name a few. There’s no doubt that the commercial sector is a growth area for UAS solutions.

LITTLEFIELD: As Kontron’s focus has been on rugged military-based unmanned solutions; it was remarkable to see the sheer number of commercial market unmanned applications represented at the show. Clearly, the companies supporting consumer unmanned systems believe there is untapped potential here and are trying to capitalize on developing solutions to fit any and all market needs. Similar to the consumer computing market, there can be benefits realized from leveraging the problems solved in non-critical applications to those on the military side.

MCHALE REPORT: Where do technology and open architectures fit in with unmanned systems? Are the platforms themselves becoming COTS, not just the ?

UNZEN: With COTS and open architectures, we see the beginnings of very rapid assembly of tailored size, shape, and formats using current standard subparts. Distributors and manufacturers will still have COTS listed but the trend is to offer fast turn application specific shapes and products built from established sub assemblies.

SOUTHWORTH: The importance of COTS for UASs differs greatly depending on the platform size and the use case. Many military program integrators are seeking COTS-based open architecture solutions for their platforms, but in some cases their application or platform may have special requirements that ultimately preclude them from finding that solution off the shelf. These requirements could include safety certifiability, harsh environmental operation, or longevity of supply. And in some cases, the environmental performance or limited lifespan of some COTS technology, along with the ever-shrinking physical constraints for size and weight onboard the UAS platform could make it increasingly unlikely to find something that meets their exact needs with an off the shelf solution. On the consumer application side, cost constraints tend to be higher, but so do the production quantities. I believe that COTS is desirable (for both time-to-market and cost reasons), but I don’t see many generic platforms being sold as COTS. Instead, you’re more likely to see some COTS-based payloads.

LITTLEFIELD: Unmanned systems have the potential to realize the full value of COTS technology and open architectures in terms of delivering well-understood, proven, cost-effective and standards-based technology that scales, offers long-life support and shortens development cycles. We are seeing that both platforms and payloads are becoming COTS based for all the reasons mentioned.

DOWNING: UAVs are advanced IoT platforms. There was still plenty of platform diversity at this year’s event, but it is obvious that innovation is slowing in this platform space, and the investment focus is moving to IoT and analysis applications. So, yes, airborne platforms are becoming COTS, and this simply reflects the maturity of the industry. To take advantage of the high value part of this industry – the applications – one will have to use COTS platforms to enable the focus on the payloads. But the payloads too are integrating standards-based COTS components to ensure that all new payload innovation can be rapidly integrated into a platform to stay ahead of competition. Having proprietary components in a UAV or IoT solution stack will force a loss in future competitiveness. In a fast-growing, highly competitive environment like commercial UAVs, the use of COTS hardware and software components are mandatory to stay relevant and competitive in this market.

MCHALE REPORT: Will defense COTS companies find the same success in non-military unmanned platforms?

SOUTHWORTH: We are already seeing more and more interest from non-military unmanned vehicle platform customers for our small form factor processors and Ethernet networking technologies. We have high expectations that these programs will yield a healthy market for defense COTS companies like Curtiss-Wright. On the other hand, the miniature consumer drone space will almost assuredly continue to be dominated by off-shore manufacturers.

DOWNING: I am not sure anyone can project the level of success for military and commercial suppliers at this time. What we do know is that suppliers of unmanned systems are experiencing a virtuous cycle of growth and innovation – both commercial and military systems are benefitting from rapid market growth based upon innovation of IoT and business intelligence solutions. This growth is based upon open standards and COTS platforms, allowing the innovation to focus on the high value IoT intelligence gathering and analysis, not the individual building blocks of the UAV or IoT solution stack. COTS platforms enable the fastest integration of the latest advancements in technology, while paving the way for rapid insertion of future innovation.

Over the last ten years, we have seen many airframes come to market and be successful – the next ten years will define how we use these airborne platforms in our personal and business lives. I expect that many of these solutions will integrate UAV data with other IoT data in the cloud, where business intelligence will be generated and delivered for profit. I further expect that next year UAV business solutions will not even have a flying or autonomous platform as part of the solution: most of the high value work will be done by IoT aggregation systems and multiple cloud systems to deliver unmanned business intelligence.

UNZEN: Defense COTs companies will still do ok but the opportunities will be limited to applications that are used in industrial applications, police, fire, disaster recovery, etc. There will be a large development in consumer markets that will not use defense COTS companies they will be driven by price and not by high-reliability components.

LITTLEFIELD: There will undoubtedly be larger suppliers with military unmanned experience that enter into the commercial space. Defense contractors and COTS suppliers such as Kontron will most likely seek emerging market opportunities on applications that best value the benefits we can bring to commercial unmanned systems. Certain commercial applications will need the full support of help with certifications, long term product availability, design stability/scalability, safety standards adherence, small form factor features, I/O and integration, ruggedization, and thermal management, which means they need to engage with experienced COTS suppliers.