Unmanned applications are still a hot market - even amidst pressure of looming defense cuts

Hello, my name is John McHale and I’m the new editorial director for Military Embedded Systems, replacing founding editor Chris Ciufo, who has moved onto other endeavors in the embedded community.

Many of you might know me from my 15 years at Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, where I not only covered embedded electronics, but also commercial avionics and homeland security technology.

The first day, week, or month on a new job can be exciting and stressful all at once, but my anxiety was quickly assuaged when I arrived at the Unmanned Systems North America show during my second week on the job and saw so many old friends. I was particularly heartened that so many of the exhibitors had positive things to say about Military Embedded Systems – the people and the product.

I guess I made the right choice. Whew!

When I first started in the industry, “embedded systems” was not a major buzzword in the military electronics community. At the time, many in the defense industry were still trying to puzzle out the meaning of the Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) procurement mandate and how it would affect designs at the component and system levels.

Exhibitors at the first Embedded Systems Conference I attended in Chicago back in 1998 did not even have military applications at the top of their target list. However, I do remember engineers from a couple of COTS suppliers sharing a booth at the show, saying embedded technology was a strong growth area in the long term for military suppliers as future military system requirements would call for smaller sizes coupled with exponential increases in performance.

Incidentally, those two companies – Dy4 Systems and Virtual Prototypes – are still major suppliers of embedded technology for military systems. Today, they are better known as Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing and Presagis, respectively.

Both companies changed hands a few times over the past 15 years, which was not uncommon among COTS suppliers. However, what is so refreshing about this industry is that while company names change, many of the people remain or end up somewhere else in the industry. Remaining in the same industry when transitioning jobs is always a positive, but it helps when the market historically is healthy without the cyclical, crash and burn characteristics of markets such as telecom.

Those positive characteristics of long-term market health were reinforced to me at the Unmanned Systems event. Unmanned vehicles – be they Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), or Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) – is one of the fastest-growing areas of defense spending.

All of these platforms require sophisticated electronics payloads to carry out their missions, whether they are for surveillance and reconnaissance or precision strikes. The payloads must fit into unique form factors and small packages for the many different-sized unmanned platforms; this means increasing opportunities for embedded designers of FPGA boards, digital signal processing systems, and RTOSs, to name a few.

Unmanned applications bode well for the long-term growth of the embedded systems market, but all military designers are at the mercy of Department of Defense spending. And with major cuts looming on the horizon, quite a few are nervous about the immediate future.

Exhibitors and attendees at the show were not calling it a doomsday scenario; however, if big cuts are made, they feel that it will seriously inhibit growth for the next few years. Research and development funding for new programs is at risk, which could result in short-term layoffs and even more industry consolidation.

Some AUVSI attendees were still positive despite budget-cut rumors, having signed long-term contracts and expressing confidence that no matter the money issues in Congress, the U.S. will need to find a way to maintain its status as the world’s toughest military force. Global terrorism hasn’t gone away, and China’s military technology gets more impressive every day.

They also feel that major cuts could result in opportunities for retrofits maintenance of older systems.

As of this writing, though, it is still anyone’s guess as to what will happen with the DoD budget. We will have more coverage on how COTS suppliers might be affected by the next budget in our October issue.

In the pages of this edition, we have our regular columns; an interview with Ray O’Brien of the NASA Ames Research Center on how NASA is seeking advice from the open source community; and our annual Resource Guide, which contains a plethora of profiles from military embedded suppliers with briefs on their latest products.

I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at upcoming industry events. Please feel free to contact me via email as well at jmchale@opensystemsmedia.com.

Lastly, I would like to thank Chris Ciufo for all his efforts in creating Military Embedded Systems magazine and in making it a regular read across the industry. We wish him well.

Thanks, John McHale