UAS and counter-UAS outlook

Welcome to our annual Unmanned Systems issue, our yearly highlight of the hottest embedded computing elements in military unmanned platforms. We bring this to you every year on the eve of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Xponential show as the magazine and its editorial staff hit the exhibition floors and conference rooms of the event.

The event itself remains strong, even as it becomes less military and more focused on the potential of the commercial unmanned market, which should be huge in applications such as package delivery, agriculture, law enforcement, hobbyist, and the like.

While military users may not dominate the show floor at Xponential like they have in years past, the investment is still strong in platforms such as the Reaper with procurement of 21 additional aircraft included in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Department of Defense (DoD) budget request. For more on major platform highlights – manned and unmanned – from the budget request, see the story on page 16.

Another change I’ve noticed over the last decade regarding the show and the industry is the evolution from a focus on the unmanned aircraft platforms – what industry folks call the “trucks” – toward the control station, toward the payloads, and toward manned/unmanned teaming. Today we focus much of our coverage on the electronics content – embedded signal processing and RF and microwave components – that goes into the payloads such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); signals intelligence (SIGINT); radar; and electronic warfare (EW). The ever-shrinking size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements of these systems is driving innovation at the supplier level. This challenge is covered in our Mil Tech Trends feature titled “UAS SWaP constraints driving RF and microwave designs” on page 30.

Unmanned aircraft are beyond being just eyes high up in the sky; rather, they have evolved to become persistent surveillance platforms gathering data where humans and manned platforms cannot, as well as lethal threats that can fire missiles and attack in swarms.

Complex threats demand complex counter-solutions. As a result, a new market is growing fast: the counter-UAS [unmanned aerial system] market or counter-drone market. In a McHale Report podcast titled “Deciphering the counter-UAS market,” I spoke with Mike Blades, Research Director, North America for Aerospace, Defense & Security at Frost & Sullivan. He talked about how the counter-UAS market is broken down into two markets – commercial and defense. Defense is the larger one right now, Blades told me, but the commercial side will surpass it just as it has in the total unmanned market. Within the next five years, both markets should be valued in excess of $5 billion, with the military market getting there first, he says.

Based on research from the Center for the Study of The Drone at Bard College (, Blades estimates that there may be as many as 150 companies developing counter-drone solutions. The types of counter-UAS solutions range from handheld RF guns and drones that capture other drones to full-fledged multilayer drone detection and mitigation systems. “Everybody wants a piece of it, just like drones,” Blades says.

Examples of counter-drone systems include the multilayer detection and mitigation system from Blighter and the Drone Killer handheld counter from IXI Technologies.

A lot of the counter-UAS market is driven by fear, Blades says, and probably more fear than is likely warranted on the commercial side. From a military perspective, the biggest threat long-term will be swarms, but the tech to truly enable swarms – a group of UASs that communicate with each other and leverage artificial intelligence to achieve a mission or endgame – isn’t quite there yet, he notes.

“When attacks are coordinated, if you take one drone out you maybe get a mission kill. But drone technology is advancing so fast, and anything we’re doing the bad guys are also doing. If you talk to the warfighter, they’re worried,” says Susan Kelly, site director of the Raytheon Albuquerque group, in our Special Report article titled “Layered counter-drone approaches are essential for deployed U.S. forces,” which you’ll find on page 26. The article covers counter-UAS systems from Raytheon, Battelle, and SRC.

The technological chess game never ends, though. Blades says that the military is already working on ways to counter the counter, such as placing pods on military UASs to spoof an adversary’s ability to see them, much like fighter aircraft counter­measures. DARPA and prime contractors such as Raytheon are already developing solutions to these new challenges.

To learn more from Mike Blades, listen to my podcast on the counter-UAS market by visiting; you can also see him on stage at the Market Insights panel: “Where we’ve been, where we’re going, and where we’re headed” at the Xponential show Wednesday, May 2 from 11 am to noon. We’ll see you there.