Even a cursory walk around the exhibit hall at the annual show of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, DC should convince all but the most die-hard technophobe that unmanned vehicles are a reality and that they will soon be ubiquitous. Virtually all the technologies are in place to support an explosion in the deployment and employment of unmanned air, land, sea and subsurface systems.
Over the past decade, the U.S. military has underwritten an explosion in unmanned systems of all types, not just aerial vehicles. Military robots became a central feature of the war on improvised explosive devices. Small, man-portable robots were developed and tested in Afghanistan. Soldiers could toss these over a wall or inside a building or cave to see what dangers might be lurking there. Unmanned underwater and surface craft could soon be aboard every Navy ship and submarine.
The greatest progress, however, was made in unmanned aerial systems (UASs) which now range in size and performance from the 15,000lb long-endurance, high altitude Global Hawk to the 4.2lb, hand-launched, low-altitude Raven. The Navy just successfully demonstrated the ability to land a UAS on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Payloads have changed and improved as dramatically with UASs now able to carry a wide range of sensor packages, laser designators and even weapons. Systems such as Gorgon Stare can simultaneously track dozens of individual targets.
In the past it has been the federal government, and the Department of Defense, in particular, that led the way in the development of UASs and related capabilities. This is a pattern similar to that experienced in a number of modern technologies such as jet airplanes, computers, satellites and even the Internet. Over time, commercial applications began to outpace military ones and the private sector became the engine of change in all these areas.
The same appears about to happen in the world of unmanned vehicles. The future of UASs is both civil and commercial and it will be out in the states. The case that the military has for unmanned systems is that they are perfect for jobs that are dangerous, boring and long. There are lots of those at the state and local level and in the private sector. The demand for unmanned systems to support everything from crime fighting and fire suppression to search and rescue, crop dusting, environmental protection and wildlife surveys, fisheries management, undersea drilling and advanced construction is growing steadily. Just imagine what a local police force or SWAT team could do in a hostage situation if they didn’t have to wait for a helicopter but were equipped with a man-portable UAS that could be popped out of the trunk of a police car and deployed to provide surveillance of a crime scene.
The locus of development for UASs could soon shift from the federal government to the states. Until recently, the federal government alone controlled the airspace necessary to test UASs. Oklahoma just became the first state to be approved by the Department of Homeland Security as a testing site for UASs to help first responders in search and rescue and natural disasters. There is also a new program under the aegis of the Federal Aviation Administration in response to Congressional direction that the National Air Space be opened up to UASs that will pick six states as designated test sites. A number of states are putting in their bids to be a designated test site. Some, like North Dakota, are doing far more. North Dakota has created a Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority that brings together a range of potential stakeholders as well as the state’s university system and the private sector to create an incubator of UAS technologies, processes, procedures and manufacturing. The opportunity to do the UAS flight testing and technology development necessary to resolve lingering issues regarding civil and commercial operations will bring companies flocking to North Dakota should it be one of the six designated test sites.
The future for the other kinds of unmanned vehicles is just as great. Robotic vehicles may someday be as common as cellphones and even more useful.
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