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Unmanned Systems 

If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One 


By Austin Wright 

The U.S. military hires contractors to operate certain unmanned aerial vehicles in combat zones. Federal agencies might one day do the same here in the United States.

Insiders call it “fee for service.” It would allow public-safety officials to rent surveillance UAVs during emergencies and scientists to lease them for research missions.

“Many federal agencies don’t have the infrastructure to acquire UAVs, but they still want to make use of the technology,” Steven Reid, AAI Corp.’s vice president for unmanned aircraft systems, said in an interview. With the fee-for-service model, “You only pay for it if you need it.”

AAI, a Maryland-based aerospace and defense company, manufactures the Shadow UAV system, a line of aircraft used for surveillance and reconnaissance. AAI has been supplying Shadow UAVs to the Army since 2002, and the company has more than 100 employees based in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain them. Last year, the Army asked AAI to start operating some of them, Reid said.

Now, about 60 AAI workers fly eight Shadow UAVs under the direction of an Army commander. Reid said AAI pilots often support combat missions, but the Shadow UAVs are unarmed.

“The Army didn’t have sufficient soldiers to man the equipment in theater, so we do the manning,” Reid said. “We’re not over there let loose. We’re following orders.”

He considers the arrangement a watered-down version of the fee-for-service model because the Army owns the Shadow UAVs. He calls it a GOCO (government-owned, contractor operated) deal. Under a typical fee-for-service agreement, the contractor would both own and operate the aircraft.

The contractor support for the Shadow probably will be temporary, until the Army trains enough of its own UAV operators, Reid said. “I think it’s part of the growing pains associated with embracing a new technology,” he added. “Right now, the Army is having trouble just training the number of soldiers necessary to field all the various pieces of equipment.”

Other companies, such as Boeing, have employees who operate reconnaissance UAVs for the Navy and Marines.

Reid believes the business model could catch on in the United States because most emergency-response and research agencies lack the resources to acquire, maintain and operate their own UAVs. 

A company such as AAI, which has its own training facility where it teaches employees to operate UAVs, could provide these agencies with access to the technology when needed, Reid said.

The University of Colorado recently paid AAI to outfit its fleet of Aerosonde Mark 4 UAVs with instruments that capture data on wind currents. AAI employees flew four aircraft over Antarctica for more than 130 hours.

The company has also operated UAVs for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Reid said. “We’re working now to see what’s the right business model, but we recognize that for most federal agencies it’s a huge investment to do the acquisition, as well as the maintenance.”

Whether the fee-for-service — or any UAV business model — takes hold in the United States will also depend on the standards that the Federal Aviation Administration sets for UAV flight in national airspace. So far, the FAA has in place tight restrictions out of concern that a UAV could collide with a commercial aircraft.

Officials at a recent conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International didn’t have kind words for the administration.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, director of army aviation in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, asked audience members: “Does anybody here work airspace for the FAA?”

No hands. “Good,” he said. “I believe strongly there is a known requirement for unmanned aerial systems for non-military uses,” he continued. “It’s going to grow and grow and grow and grow.”

He urged the FAA to relax its standards before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. All the remotely piloted aircraft currently overseas will return to U.S. bases, and the military will want to increase the amount of training here.

“We will be bringing these vehicles back … and training over your homes and in your cities, so we better be ready,” he said.

For its part, the FAA has said industry has lagged in its ability to develop adequate sense-and-avoid technologies to prevent collisions. The agency must also set standards for command-and-control systems meant to ensure that hackers can’t corrupt the communications link between UAVs and their operators.

But industry leaders said the FAA is moving at a snail’s pace. “We’ve been working with the FAA for 12 years, and we’re not that much farther than when we started,” said Frank Pace, General Atomics’ executive vice president for UAV development and promotion. “I think there’s not a sense of urgency in the country when it comes to unmanned aircraft, and we’re going to lose our lead if we don’t do something about it.”

Reid said AAI has been working with the Army to test sense-and-avoid cameras that could be embedded in the wings of Shadow UAVs. They use polarized light to identify objects.

Reader Comments

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

“We will be bringing these vehicles back … and training over your homes and in your cities, so we better be ready,”

This should scare the bejeezus out of anyone who still believes in a free country where citizens have a right to go about their business without being under constant surveillance. If our enemies really do "hate us for our freedoms", we will be giving them much less reason to do so if the General Schloesser's statement ir reflective of our government's intentions.

John Galt on 09/22/2010 at 09:21

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

Who needs to rent? There are people building some really great UAVs for use outside of the military.

For instance Techpod UAV

This kind of UAV is great for a lot of purposes.

madbohem on 09/20/2010 at 22:26

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

We do have great interest to lease our products to companies exploring new possibilities of various scenarios and use cases. So if there is any interest out there, just contact us. We may have a solution for you.


Lars, Swiss UAV

Lars Zander on 08/10/2010 at 08:35

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

Does any of the above mentioned companies rent the UAV's for civil commercial use ??? There is a project in south american country where we can rent one for as long as 2 yrs contract.

Awaiting hearing from you soon.
Best Regards,

Jose De Vivero

Jose De Vivero on 05/11/2010 at 13:47

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

A great new business for the defense companies.

Dave on 02/18/2010 at 13:26

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

As a matter of interest, what are the U.S. Home Land Security people going to do about all those future UAV's flying around all over the place? Mostly anyone can make one of those things fly to anywhere that they would want to! It would be interesting to know.

Regards, Len , Canadian commercial pilot

Len Gauthier on 02/17/2010 at 16:22

Re: If You Can’t Afford a UAV, Rent One

When the US government starts leasing its time to abandon ship.

Dennis Reiley on 02/17/2010 at 15:27

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