Unmanned Aviation: More Money Than Ever, But Worries About the Future
The unmanned aircraft industry is, by most measures, in its heyday. Thousands of new UAVs have been purchased, and continue to be bought by themilitary services. Unmanned aerial vehicles not only were spared from Secretary Robert Gates’ recent budget shakeup, but actually emerged as winners.
Thegood times may not last, however, warned a panel of experts at a Feb. 2 industry conference. They fear that the rapid rise of UAVs as the military’s “it” technology could easily be followed by a rapid fall, unless the industry finds ways to make unmanned systems more useful and less costly.
The near-term outlook for military UAVs is bright, said Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of unmanned warfare at the office of the secretary of defense, at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference, in Washington, D.C.
Manufacturers nonetheless have to begin to think about how to provide better value for the Pentagon’s UAV dollars, said Weatherington.
“As long as unmanned systems continue to support the war fighter … this technology area will compete very well in the future in Defense Department budgets … even in a fairly tight fiscal environment,” he said. In the coming years, he added, the industry will needs to start showing it can reduce costs, particularly the “life cycle” expenses of maintaining and operating aircraft. “In my opinion, the real value comes in life-cycle cost savings,” he said.
An ever larger challenge for the UAV industry is to position itself to move beyond its flavor-of-the-month status and design systems that the military can keep using decades into the future, said Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and unmanned systems expert.
“It’s getting difficult to see that next step,” he said. In a budget crunch, the Pentagon’s “commitment to manned systems may squeeze out more innovative and, arguably, more effective and even cheaper unmanned options.” He cautioned that the conventional wisdom that is beginning to take hold is that unmanned aerial systems are only good for counterinsurgencies. “It’s the common mistake we see in history: Judging a technology only by its early capabilities rather than by where it’s headed.” The promise of a new technology, said Singer, usually is ascertained by the original purpose for which it was used, and it’s assessed on the virtues or flaws of the first generation rather than the trajectory of where the technology it’s headed.
Displaying a chart that showed the Defense Department’s largest acquisition programs, Singer pointed out that none of those items on that list were “unmanned.” The reason UAV programs have been flush over the past seven to eight years is that they have received emergency war funds. It is not clear what will happen when current wars wind down and those supplemental appropriations dwindle. “How do we move unmanned systems from being supported by mainly contingency funds into the regular budget?” Singer asked. Moreover, when programs do make it into the regular budget, they will still have to compete with “manned systems [such as the Joint Strike Fighter] that have much larger constituencies,” he said. “We could describe this as the ‘F-35 problem.’”
The industry also needs to figure out how to make more innovative products, or it could invite backlash, said John Platts, technical lead at Qinetiq Ltd., a manufacturer of military robots.
“We’re in danger of developing redundant weapons … that have too many features we don’t use,” he said.
The problem is not necessarily technological, but cultural, he said. “It’s the fixation on platforms, on shiny things that are flying” that stifles innovation, he said. UAVs are designed and employed as stand-alone systems, rather than as members of a larger community of weapons and sensors, Platts said. “We insert platforms into our enterprises like a Lego brick, largely segregated, and expect them to do a job.”
The next phase of UAV development should consider serving a broader “community of consumers,” he said. “There’s extraordinary versatility available in unmanned systems. … My worry is that if we don’t get away from the platform centric view, we are going to be losing out. We are going to design in redundancy. That’s not what we should be doing.”
The Defense Department also is guilty of wasteful spending, because it allows contractors to build aircraft with its own proprietary command-and-control ground stations that are incompatible with other UAVs, said Weatherington. His office is working on an “open architecture model” that would enforce commonality across UAV systems, he said. “In today’s environment, every time we build an unmanned system, we buy a dedicated command-and-control component,” said Weatherington. That is uneconomical because most UAVs perform similar functions. “We pay the prime [contractors] to design command-and-control systems” that are not interoperable, he said.
UAV designers and engineers for years have wondered if and when the Defense Department will be ready to embrace new concepts for deploying UAVs, such as in more autonomous roles, or as “swarms” of aircraft that “think” independently. The swarming model would have vehicles deployed as individual units while being a part of a larger organization. UAVs would communicate and share relevant information and, in response to changing threats, would redirect themselves.
“I think we can see the trends headed towards that,” said Singer. “But the challenge goes back to the budget environment.”
If the Pentagon wants to implement a “doctrine of swarms,” it has to buy systems today with that goal in mind, he said. Current acquisition decisions don’t appear to be pointing in that direction, said Singer. The Navy, for instance, is buying a new class of vessels, the Littoral Combat Ship, that will deploy UAVs under the traditional “hub and spoke” concept. “That inherently prevents you from adopting the swarm approach,” he said.
In its planning for next-generation unmanned systems, the military is being risk-averse, he said. A case in point is the Air Force’s research program to develop a replacement for the current Reaper combat UAV. “We are aiming for a one-size-fits-all acquisition,” Singer said. Buying a new weapon without a vision of how it will be employed is a recipe for disappointment, he said. Air Force leaders have said the future UAV is “going to operate like a fighter jet, take on roles of the F-16, it will be a sensor platform able to replace Global Hawk and, oh by the way, it’ll carry cargo.” That sounds as if what the Air Force wants is an unmanned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, trying to be all things to all people, Singer said. As a result, the Air Force could end up with a system that is over-engineered and over-priced, he said. “If our goal is swarming, we’ve already made the decision that we’re not going to be there.”
Another source of consternation within the UAV industry is the slow pace of growth in the domestic market. The most likely users of UAVs in the United States, law enforcement agencies, are not jumping on the bandwagon as quickly as vendors had hoped.
They have been following what the military is doing with UAVs, but lacking the Pentagon’s lavish budgets, law enforcement organizations still don’t see these systems as a mainstream technology that they can afford, Singer said.
The lukewarm acceptance of UAVs domestically has both financial and social justifications, he said. “It’s how robotics are viewed through popular culture,” Singer said. “We have a deep concern over something being given autonomy, whereas in Japan there’s all sorts of roles that are being automated that we are not even exploring.” In Japan, for example, robots are used as baby sitters.
As far as employment of UAVs in domestic law enforcement, one concern is the FAA restrictions for flying unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. But affordability is the number-one impediment, Singer said. If industry wants to capture that market, manufacturers have to produce lower cost systems.
The Coast Guard’sUAV woes illustrate this problem. The service for years has sought to acquire unmanned aircraft but, financially, the technology remains out of reach. A recentCongressional Research Service report noted that the cost of operating the Predator UAV is $28.5 million a year and each aircraft requires a crew of 20 people to operate, which amounts to a $3,234 per-hour cost.