Drones Take Flight For Civilian Use

Mike Abrams, Special to
AeroVironment's Raven drone

As the two longest wars in American history come to a close, and defense spending decelerates, defense contractors are quickly devising ways to alter their war-time technology for commercial and civilian use.

One technology that is already taking flight is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. UAVs have been a crucial asset in in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will soon be keeping a bird’s eye view of things here at home. In February, President Obama signed a reauthorization bill directing the Federal Aviation Administration to write rules opening the national air space to UAVs by 2015.

This reauthorization bill specifically directs the FAA to “allow a government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less.”

This is good news for AeroVironment, maker of the Raven, one of the smallest portable, hand-launched, unmanned aircraft systems in the market today. AeroVironment is already an established drone-making powerhouse, supplying more than 6,000 of the 7,000-plus drones purchased by the Department of Defense over the past 10 years.

The Raven, designed for rapid deployment and low-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, looks almost like a toy airplane. In fact, the 4.2 pound drone is launched by pushing the propeller and then throwing it into the air.

But with a price tag of anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000, it is anything but a toy. It has a range of 10 kilometers, and delivers real-time color or infrared imagery to a ground operator, making the system — which is ideal for foot-mobile military units in places like Afghanistan — a useful tool for law enforcement in the U.S. Sold as a package of three planes and two ground control systems, the price is based on additional “payloads” that come with the system. These various payloads consist of cameras, infrared lenses, laser illuminators, digital data links and communication relay systems.

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.”