Budget Schmudget: Robotics Revolution Will Continue, Industry Experts Say
Robotics, once considered a niche market for academic researchers, space engineers and hobbyists tinkering at home, has become one of the hottest sectors of the defense industry.
The "unmanned systems" industry in fact expects to continue to grow, despite looming budget cuts for the Defense Department. The consensus among industry leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual expo is that the revolution will not cease, and that budgetary constraints could actually help advance the market. Companies, for instance, plan to market new machines as money savers.
“The budget turmoil does cause some concern. But we believe the unmanned revolution will continue,” said Paul Meyer, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s advanced programs and technology division. The company manufactures several military unmanned aircraft, including the Global Hawk high altitude long endurance airplane flown by the Air Force to gather video and data through suites of cameras and other onboard sensors.
Senior defense officials have compared the importance of robotics to that of stealth during the 1980s. That level of confidence in the technology is good for business, said Robert “Knob” Moses, president of the government and industrial division at iRobot Corp., maker of ground robots for explosive ordnance disposal teams.
“We don’t think the drive of innovation will stop. But we think it will be contained,” said Myers. One of the problems that suppliers see is the lack of technological standards for UAV communications and data sharing. As the Pentagon rushed over the past eight years to deploy drones, most robotic vehicles have proprietary data systems and ground-control stations that are not compatible across the fleet.
“That has pooled a huge manpower and logistics trail, which is unsustainable in the budget,” said Mark Bigham, vice president of business development for Intelligence and Information Systems' Defense and Civil Mission Solutions at Raytheon. “Things are going to have to change pretty radically.”
In briefings to reporters at the show, the dominant theme heard from the industry is the need for affordability. “We’re going to have to find a way… to do more with no more, and in fact, to do more with less,” Bigham said. “We believe that that is driving us toward a radical shift in the way we buy and acquire capabilities in the UAS market.”
Companies are shifting toward open architecture in control systems so that ground stations can operate multiple types of aircraft and robots. They are working on computer interfaces so that operators can access data from every unmanned system in a common format. They are increasing the "autonomy" of vehicles so that operators can spend less time driving and minding the robots.
To stay ahead of the game, Northrop Grumman is tackling two of the toughest challenges for unmanned aircraft systems in particular: air-to-air refueling and autonomously launching and landing on aircraft carrier decks.
“We see these as largely problems of computing power and systems and engineering, not fundamental technology development. We believe it will be solved fairly shortly,” said Wes Bush, chief executive officer and president of Northrop Grumman Corp., in a keynote speech to the conference.
A group of engineers is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop an air-to-air refueling capability in the Global Hawk. Enabling the aircraft to refuel another Global Hawk at 38,000 feet at speeds beyond the ability of Air Force tankers today is the goal, officials said.
The company in 2014 plans to refuel its tailless carrier-launched stealth aircraft demonstrator, the Unmanned Combat Aerial System, with an Air Force tanker.