HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have proven themselves in war. Now, researchers and companies, including some in Alabama, are working to find commercial applications. Drones, as they are often called, have been on display at this week’s Paris Air Show.
The U.S. military has used the pilotless craft in a number of foreign conflicts, but as involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, many are looking for ways to use the technology for domestic operations and business purposes. It’s tough to tell exactly how large the drone industry is, but the U.S. Defense Department budgeted $3.8 billion for UAVs in 2013, according to a Marketplace report.
At the Paris Air Show, manufacturers of unmanned aircraft showed off civil uses of their products. The Associated Press noted in a report that French-based Delair-Tech displayed a small craft that can survey utility lines for damage, while senseFly, a Swiss company, showed off Styrofoam-like planes that can be used to map property. Another, Design Intelligence Inc. of Oklahoma, introduced solar-powered drones that can carry small loads of cargo to remote locales.
The economic impact of UAS integration in Alabama alone is expected to total $294 million from 2015 through 2017 and create 1,050 new jobs, according to a report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry lobby. The state’s total through 2025 is expected to reach an economic impact of $1.765 billion, creating 2,231 new jobs and generating $14.6 million in tax revenue.
Nationwide, that will total 70,000 new jobs worth $13.6 billion of business. By 2025, the industry could grow to more than 100,000 new jobs with an economic impact of $82 billion.
“It’s going to be a national market, but if the U.S. doesn’t find a way to capitalize, I think you’re going to see international players step in,” said Mike Ward, vice president of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County. “I see a really bright future for unmanned systems and now is the time to start taking advantage of that.”
Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has acquired three UAV companies in the past year. One of those was Huntsville-based ChandlerMay Inc., which designs, develops and manufactures UAVs such as the Desert Hawk UAV and a fully integrated UAS in the Fury and the SharkFin. Within months of ChandlerMay, Lockheed Martin also bought Procerus Technologies in Utah and Canada’s CDL Systems.
Both the Fury – unveiled at a previous Paris Air Show — and the Desert Hawk are expected to be marketable items for Lockheed Martin at the event this week, said Jay McConville, director of business development for unmanned integrated systems at Lockheed Martin. K-Max, ChandlerMay’s unmanned helicopter, also has received very good international interest recently.
“Putting those groups together with what Lockheed Martin already had really puts the flag for small unmanned aircraft in Alabama,” McConville said.
If the Federal Aviation Administration opens U.S. airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015 like planned, a variety of business endeavors could benefit. The FAA has already licensed about 300 commercial UAVs, but that total is expected to increase to 30,000 by 2020. Huntsville is hoping to be one of six UAV testing sites chosen by the FAA to study how unmanned vehicles would co-exist with commercial aircraft.
One of the biggest current users of UAS technology is the U.S. Army. The Army’s demand, which began as a deliberate strategy to expand the number of UAS in use in 2004, has been mostly driven by the success of UAS in wars like Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a few years, the number of unmanned aerial systems increased from tens of systems to 2,500 systems, according to Richard Kretzschmar, deputy project manager for the U.S. Army’s unmanned aerial systems program.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re still in the infancy of UAS,” he said. “As much as it’s grown and as much as it’s changed the way we fight, we’re just scratching the surface of what we can and can’t do. We’ll see continued growth, and it’ll play a role in the U.S. economy if we play it right.”
A number of aerospace companies in addition to Lockheed Martin have UAV projects in Huntsville: Sierra Nevada Corp., Camber, Griffon Aerospace and Dynetics all have operations in North Alabama. For example, Dynetics – founded and headquartered in Huntsville – supports UAS training operations, payloads, system engineering and mechanical design.
UAS are already being used for a number of commercial applications, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. That includes wildlife mapping, agricultural monitoring, disaster management, law enforcement, telecommunication, weather monitoring, television news coverage, environmental monitoring, oil and gas exploration and freight transport.
“Covering and justifying the cost of UAS is straightforward,” the trade group’s report said. “In the precision agriculture market, the average price of the UAS is a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft, such as a helicopter or crop duster, without any of the safety hazards. For public safety, the price of the product is approximately the price of a police squad car equipped with standard gear. It is also operated at a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft, such as a helicopter, reducing the strain on agency budgets as well as the risk of bodily harm to the users in many difficult and dangerous situations. Therefore, the cost-benefit ratios of using UAS can be easily understood.”
The majority of Lockheed Martin’s UAV business still comes from military and international customers, but as air space is freed up, McConville said the technology that’s matured in the defense world would be adaptable to civilian application.
“The civil and commercial market is still developing,” he said. “There are a lot of new uses that we probably haven’t even thought of, so years out it might be even larger than the defense market, but we’re not there yet.”