Technology
Arthur Holland Michel

The future of the drone: From war machine to crop duster

Commercial use of unmanned aircraft is poised to outpace military use in the next decade

ORLANDO, Fla. — Spend a few minutes on the gigantic exhibition floor at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) 2014 convention and it becomes clear that the military drone business is alive and well. Uniformed men and women from all over the world stroll among the 600 or so displays while representatives show off everything from quadcopters that can fit in the palm of your hand to hulking high-altitude drones capable of carrying wingloads of high-precision missiles.

But the future of the drone industry is not just military; it’s civilian. “The commercial industry is going to be taking over,” said Bill Powers, a research fellow at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “It’s going to become a huge market.”

BCB International’s SQ-4 Recon, a quadcopter designed for aerial surveillance
BCB International’s SQ-4 Recon, a quadcopter designed for aerial surveillance.
Arthur Holland Michel

According to Michael Toscano, president of the AUVSI, the commercial market will outstrip military demand within the next decade. “Most people understand that the growth is going to be in the commercial world,” he said. Despite the very visible presence of military representatives (who attend the convention for free) 76 percent of the AUVSI’s 8,000 attendees registered as having affiliations with the commercial sector.

But the large defense companies that have been producing military drones — in some cases for more than two decades — have no intention of forgoing the commercial market. They plan to follow demand, bringing drones from the skies over conflict hot spots to the civilian world.

Coming home with the troops

Even though the size of the civilian sector will depend on the demand for “applications that we haven’t even thought of,” as Toscano put it, defense companies are taking action.

“We probably don’t even know yet how many creative uses there are going to be for unmanned-aircraft-systems technology,” said Steve Gitlin, a marketing executive at AeroVironment, a maker of small surveillance drones that has sold more units to the Department of Defense (DOD) than any other company.

Insitu is a subsidiary of Boeing that originally sold drones for weather monitoring and tuna fishing. In the past 15 years, it became one of the DOD’s biggest drone suppliers, but now the company is turning back to its civilian roots. “Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan, and we are coming home with them,” said Ryan Hartman, Insitu’s senior vice president of programs. “We’re looking for opportunities in the commercial market and other opportunities in the global market to keep the company moving forward.”

As defense spending drops globally, these companies are eager to make up for lost business in the commercial drone market. Northrop Grumman, which makes a range of high-order military drones, is among the defense giants most aggressively pursuing a slice of the commercial pie. A week before the convention, the company announced that it had partnered with Yamaha, which manufactures crop-dusting drones that have been widely used in Japan for close to 20 years, to produce a small helicopter drone called the R-Bat. According to Terry Parisher, a manager at Northrop Grumman, this represents the company’s first foray into the commercial drone market.

He said the R-Bat is capable of conducting “power-line monitoring, surveillance for border patrol, surveying land, detecting gas leaks on gas pipelines and any kind of observation capability that civil authorities may need to use to assist people in need.”

According to Parisher, Northrop Grumman, like other defense companies, “believes that the development of unmanned-aircraft systems in the national airspace, with [Federal Aviation Administration] approval, will result in an interest in unmanned systems that way surpasses what the Department of Defense currently uses them for.” That is not to say that the R-Bat drone won’t also be sold to military customers; the company announced that it will demonstrate the drone for the U.S. Navy in June. 

Lockheed Martin’s Vector Hawk
Lockheed Martin’s Vector Hawk.
Arthur Holland Michel

Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, recently developed a range of small drones that take aim at the commercial market and appear to have more in common with toys than with deadly weapons. One model, the Indago, is being marketed directly to agricultural customers in addition to the DOD.

According to industry magazine Flight Global, the company has already begun sales of the system to agricultural customers in the United States, even though the FAA does not yet permit the commercial use of drones. On Tuesday, Lockheed announced it had developed a four-pound fixed-wing drone called the Vector Hawk, which the company also intends to market to civilian customers. Soon we may see Lockheed Martin drones monitoring crops and protecting wildlife. 

Competition from startups

At the convention, these defense giants shared the exhibition floor with a dizzying number of startups and small companies. “There are 50 companies making drones that have a 10-foot wingspan,” said one defense company executive. “It’s very crowded.”

The falling price of off-the-shelf components, coupled with the rise of open-source technology, means that anybody with a garage and a little spare time can build a functional, relatively cheap drone. “I have been at AUVSI for 15 minutes, and I have already seen two or three new competitors,” said Hartman.

German manufacturer Microdrones is one such competitor, specializing in drones for imaging and mapping. While it maintains relationships with some defense customers, the majority of its sales are for commercial applications. Though it has been in business only since 2005, its booth at the AUVSI was among the most popular.

Sven Juerss, the company’s stout, cheerful CEO, cuts an entirely different figure from the slick, suited representatives of his larger competitors. Though he recognizes that the defense companies are moving to enter his market, he seemed unfazed. “I think this is a scenario that may come in the future, but right now we don’t have to fear them.”

But perhaps Juerss should worry.

“You see at the show here a large number of companies that could make a 200-pound UAV, whether it’s a fixed-wing or a helicopter,” said Chris Van Buiten of Sikorsky Aircraft, which announced that it was developing a drone variant of the famous Black Hawk helicopter that can be used for nonmilitary applications. “But there are very few that can make a Blackhawk-size aircraft, period.”

Startups that are successful may not remain independent for long. “As soon as any of these small companies become a threat, the big companies will buy them,” Powers said. “They’ll get rich anyway.”

Ultimately, the growing civilian demand for drones does not signal the demilitarization of this technology. The same defense companies that currently dominate the military industry will come to dominate the civilian industry as well. Even when used for peaceful purposes, the drone will remain enmeshed in the business of war.

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