Steven Gitlin, AeroVironment’s vice president of marketing strategy and communications, likens the Raven to a smartphone. “It gives you the type of information you need, when and where you need it,” he said.
AeroVironment is not the only defense contractor racing to adapt their technology for commercial and civil use. Companies like Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing; General Atomics;Northrop Grumman;BAE Systems; and Lockheed Martin are all major players in the drone industry.
According to the FAA, there are nearly 100 companies, universities and government agencies that are developing and producing more than 300 UAV designs, which range from a hummingbird replica that weighs less than a AA battery to a full-sized Boeing 737.
The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, estimates that UAV spending will almost double over the next decade, from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion. It estimates that total spending over the next 10 years will be close to $89 billion.
Steve Morrow, CEO of Insitu, which has supplied more than 1,400 medium range UAV systems to the DoD, is optimistic about the potential uses of UAVs outside combat. “The uses are really only limited to your imagination: Everything from supporting law enforcement, forest firefighting, pipeline surveillance, natural resource management, you name it,” he said.
But, while the sky is the limit for UAVs — the FAA expects that 25,000 UAVs will be operating in national air space around the U.S. in the next 10 years — Morrow also recognizes the challenges drone makers face with meeting the specific needs of cash-strapped customers, many of which are local government agencies.
“If we’re to move into the commercial and civil market, we’ve got to do things much, much more affordable than we’ve done for the military over in Afghanistan,” he said. “The needs are different, the customers are different, they’re more budget-constrained. I think that’s the real, next evolution in UAS [unmanned aerial systems]: affordability.”