Unmanned Aerial Systems at a Crossroads

By Sandra I. Erwin

Less than a month after passing a high-profile test of joint manned and unmanned carrier operations, the U.S. Navy and the defense community must suddenly face up to a hard truth: the biggest challenges for the future of America’s unmanned airpower are not only technical, but also bureaucratic.

On the eve of what was supposed to be the kickoff of one of the most important contracts in more than a century of naval aviation, the Navy’s new carrier-launched unmanned aircraft has been put on hold once again. The government’s request for proposal for the UCLASS (unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike) program is now indefinitely delayed, a product of a tightened budgetary environment, as well as underlying tensions over just how much war fighting capability aviators should cede to their unmanned counterparts.

The delay is significant and underscores issues around the evolution of unmanned flight that have major implications for the aerospace and defense industry. UCLASS is notable for its budget alone, projected at $1 billion over the next two years. But more importantly, it is the last major new start, fully open U.S. military unmanned aerial system competition planned for the foreseeable future. The program’s much debated requirements are a reflection of how far the Navy is willing to push the service’s acceptance of unmanned capabilities, especially if it comes at the expense of legacy priorities around manned aviation.

Unmanned aircraft are at an evolutionary crossroads embodied by this troubled competition. The fundamental questions faced by UCLASS decision makers ring true for more than just the program alone. Will the next unmanned platforms represent incremental developments that primarily draw upon the demonstrated, capable technology of the past decade? Or is the United States on the precipice of an airpower revolution? This revolution would be brought about by investment in advanced but less battlefield tested technology that provides more of the capabilities that increasingly encroach upon the well defended turf of manned aircraft.

As demonstrated by UCLASS, rapid growth in the unmanned industry and exponentially improving technology are not a fait accompli. The technology development choices that are made today — and how the UCLASS program unfolds — are going to determine the future capabilities and utility of unmanned systems, in military and commercial markets alike. The groundwork laid over the next several years will shape whether future unmanned systems will look and operate as they do now, or take on even more functions heretofore performed by manned aircraft.

Even with the uncertainty surrounding UCLASS, there is clear potential for the expansion of unmanned systems. New use cases can push the industry forward and create an upside scenario of sustained, breakthrough growth. There are no shortage of innovative ways in which unmanned aircraft can increasingly conduct operations that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for pilots.
It is apparent, however, that real challenges stand in the way of realizing this upside. These challenges are not purely technical in nature. High-level advocates in the military and commercial worlds are needed to champion the benefits of unmanned aerial systems. Industry must ensure that decision makers and the general public can trust these aircraft in the sky overhead on a daily basis.

First and foremost, technical progress is required for transformational growth. This is a “show-me” moment for both the military and civilian unmanned aircraft industries. It includes developing critical leap-ahead capabilities that, among other things, allow for operations in congested or crowded airspace, safely integrating unmanned aviation with civil air traffic control systems, enhance endurance and survivability, and validate an ever-increasing number of missions.

Making significant strides in these areas will go a long way toward enabling next-generation systems to take flight. But technology evolution and sustainable new growth will not happen without the underlying technology investments required to overcome these barriers. This will not be easy. The leap ahead to the next generation is long and challenging. UCLASS may ultimately help get part of the way there, but that is no guarantee.

Traditionally, the unmanned systems industry has driven such leaps with internal research-and-development funding or through large-scale government programs. At the crossroads of unmanned aircraft evolution, both have their shortfalls. Internal R&D investments by corporations alone may not provide sufficient capital to effectively develop the next generation of unmanned systems. Large government funding programs beyond UCLASS are not yet on the horizon, although it is possible that they could emerge at some point in the future.

In addition to the traditional funding avenues, new models for technology investment also need to be considered. The future of unmanned aviation cannot rest solely on internal R&D or wait for the next big government-funded program. That simply will not work. Industry will need to look toward innovative technology development models that maximize internal capabilities while also leveraging the best that public and private sector partners have to offer.

For the industry to thrive, and to stay ahead, it is imperative that the public and private sectors engage in a coordinated effort to make strategic, yet sensible, technology investments that move capabilities forward even if the pace of change is different than government and industry are used to. This includes smart, targeted investments that look more like venture funding and less like DoD programs of record — think millions of dollars, not billions.

This is a new world for many aerospace and defense firms accustomed to making business cases around U.S. government development contracts and formal military acquisition programs. The challenges of innovating and developing advanced unmanned systems are considerable, but so are the rewards. Indeed, unmanned systems are poised to transform military operations once again and even potentially bolster the U.S. economy.

Those who lay the groundwork today will position themselves as pioneers of the next chapter of civil and military aviation. Taking the initiative on unmanned aircraft offers the prospect of enduring competitive advantage, not to mention the possibility of breakthrough growth. But just how far will industry be willing or able to go? To what extent will government and the military effectively incentivize industry? The answers will shape the unmanned industry’s trajectory and the future of aviation.

Josh Pavluk is a senior associate at the consulting firm Avascent, where he advises clients in the aerospace, defense, homeland security and public safety sectors. 

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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