The UAS market is on the cusp of a huge disruption which will see the rise of new innovative firms and almost certainly the demise of some currently established players. The root of this disruption: the opening of civil airspace to unmanned systems.
In the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) plans to have regulations in place for the safe integration of civil UAS into the U.S. National Airspace System by September 30 2015, a date which will mark the opening of a major new market for unmanned systems. Earlier this year Kaman, which produces the K-max unmanned helicopter, said it expects to see unmanned helicopters flying for commercial US customers within 5 years.
This poses a key question to stakeholders in the UAS community – governments, military and industry – how do they meet the challenge and reap the benefits of a major change in what is currently a stable sector.
The UAS sector is currently dominated by firms that operate in the defence and security sector. Military requirements have driven the development of UAS up to now and there has been a very limited commercial market as civilian airspace restrictions have prevented their use in most civil areas.
The firms at the forefront of UAS development are used to dealing with military requirements and timescales which involve significant engagement with the customer and can be developed over years, if not decades. They are often publically held and while they invest in R&D often have cumbersome structures in place to monitor investment, which can inhibit innovation.
There is also a focus on the big-ticket systems – tactical UAS such as Predator/Reaper, the UK’s Watchkeeper, the future unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV) that is the subject of UK-French co-operation, with billions of dollars and pounds invested in developing the capability.
However, there are a trends in the UAS space which are laying the foundations for change. The first is the increasing commoditisation of platform and components – particularly sensors and power plants. Linked to this is the increasing importance of the software that delivers the capability – whether it is path finding, sensor fusion or data analysis. The real ‘value-add’ in the UAS space right now is not hardware but software and it is the software side that will determine who is successful in the future UAS market.
This is crucial because once the civil airspace market opens up it will trigger an explosion of interest, investment and innovation in commercial UAS. The established players will suddenly be facing competition from a whole new generation of small, agile, software led companies vying for contracts to provide the brains for a new generation of civil UAS platforms.
This sudden increase in competition has the potential to result in a frenzy of rapid innovations and advances in key areas like sense and avoid, autonomy, data and sensor analysis.
These platforms may initially be small or micro-level platforms (glorified remote control vehicles), but the increase in demand that will come from the opening of the skies will inevitably lead to rapid progression in size and capability.
The risk for operators is that their expensive, bespoke military systems may rapidly be equalled or even exceeded by commercially available technology in all but the most expensive and advanced military systems, rendering all that valuable investment obsolete.
Rapid advances in commercial technology may drive down costs for defence UAS, but this also has a flip side. Reduced costs will lead to greater proliferation of UAS systems and technology to state and non-state actors, potentially presenting new threats to be countered in the military domain.
This new world is already starting to build. I recently spoke with Matt Parker, Precision Director of UAS Operations in the US (one of the largest, if not the largest, private sector operator of UAS in the world) who told me that he’s already seeing the emergence of a new type of competitor: small companies springing up trying to leverage off-the-shelf remote controlled aircraft technology with in-house developed or open source autopilots – and their approach is revealing.
“While we’ve been talking to government level customers, the DoD, SOCOM, they’ve been talking to tech investors and getting money to enter the market,” he says.
It may not just be the small tech start-up that disrupt – the lure of a new market will also entice major players from other sectors who may then end up competing in the military UAS as well as civilian markets.
While Parker says that these new entrants operate “at a different level” to Precision, the question he and other UAS manufacturers and operators will need to answer in the near future is: how long until that changes – and are they ready?
By Matthew Smith