Catching on: commercial UAS expansion

There is no doubt that the commercial unmanned market is continuing to grow in leaps and bounds. Many of the events aimed at the UV sector are now leaning increasingly towards non-military operators, and solely civil-focused unmanned events are now a firm fixture on our calendar.

An examination of the market shows there is huge opportunity for both the likes of DJI, providing small UAS to hobbyists and photographers, as well as the traditionally defence-orientated companies looking to service large industries such as energy and agriculture.

The latest issue of UV magazine looks into the commercial business units (CBU) that have been set up by such companies as they look to tap into what looks to be a lucrative market.

It is easy to recognise the likes of the Insitu ScanEagle and Textron Aerosonde as platforms initially made for the military. However, both companies are leading the commercial charge, and while they continue to maintain their relationships with government customers, executives are clearly looking to the future and a commercial world predicted to be worth billions of dollars.

What we have found to be most interesting about these commercial offerings is the idea of providing a whole service. It is understandable that, unlike government customers, those in the business world do not want the added expense of actually acquiring systems.

Additionally, the service concept puts a large focus on analytical tools. It was apparent at this year’s Xponential in Dallas that there is now an emphasis on data analytics within the unmanned market beyond simply the platforms themselves. Again, while government customers are able to pay for their own in-house analytics, commercial users prefer to contract someone to provide that as part of a service.

Textron and Insitu are now over 12 months into CBU operations and are both beginning to see the fruits of their labour, although at this time it is making up a small part of their profits.

One reassuring aspect of big defence organisations working in the commercial world is their know- how when it comes to regulations. Insitu told me that it continues to work with regulators on how best to incorporate UAS into commercial airspace and wants to lead by example.

While legislation on UAS is still in a state of flux, there is clearly a desire from industry to get it right. The misuse of UAS is only likely to damage opportunities in the future for those in the commercial market.

What is positive to see is a serious and thoughtful approach by the defence world to satisfy commercial requirements.

Military use of UAS also continues to move forward, with more demands being put on the platforms than ever before, including increased payload capacity, extended operational range and the fast collection of ISR data.

The enduring capability of tactical UAS is something that the same companies who are looking to the commercial market are trying to keep on top of. Military contracts continue to come thick and fast.

Again, the challenge for those key players who currently dominate US and European military procurement will be transitioning this success to the commercial world.

Competition will come from disruptive new players entering the market. While we have seen plenty of start-ups attending events with small quadcopters, there is also room for companies with new business models that appeal to the commercial customer.

Defence companies are set to make a bigger splash in the civil market – they have now gone well beyond just dipping their toes in the water, and Shephard will continue to follow the CBU journey closely.

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