The fast growing importance (and prevelance) of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is reflected in the recent announcement by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that a new research center will be established within the year. The location will be determined by a competition and consist of representatives from government, academia, and industry. This Center of Excellence (COE) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems will conduct unmanned aircraft research, education, and training.
The new COE fits within the FAA's UAS Integration Roadmap and could be an opportunity for photonics companies since technologies such as airborne imaging sensors, lidar, and other optical systems are critical technologies carried aboard UASs of all sizes and applications.
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Meanwhile, lobbying groups and individuals are increasing the pressure on the FAA to speed up its review and to find ways quickly to authorize the use of small, commercial drones in civilian airspace. The petitioners range from farmers and real estate agencies to search-and-rescue operations.
As for military UASs, a market report from Frost & Sullivan says that, as U.S. Department of Defense budgets for UASs decline, domestic UAS manufacturers must exploit opportunities in foreign military and the global commercial UAS market to stay afloat. The study notes that the market earned revenue of $4.97 billion in 2013 and estimates this to reach $6.53 billion in 2018. A large part of this increase is due to research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funding for long range strike bombers. If budget constraints hit RDT&E funding, more reasonable revenue projections for 2018 represent an overall decreasing market at $3.7-4 billion.
The report says future tactical and larger UASs will need defensive features and integration capabilities with manned systems, and platforms that can reliably deliver payloads over greater ranges and for longer periods will also be favored. Electronic warfare, cargo transport, atmospheric satellites, and identifying intercontinental ballistic missile launches in boost phase are other emerging uses of UASs.
Finally, this quote from the report circles back to the emerging civilian market for drones: “Large defense contractors like Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin will likely acquire and/or partner with technologically-advanced small businesses to enhance their capabilities in the face of reducing market potential. These acquisitions will help firms widen their profit margins as well as compete in the nascent civil UAS market.”