[Avionics Today March 13, 2014] While the U.S. lags behind in the global commercial drone boom, experts on a panel at the Satellite 2014 conference in Washington, D.C. were more than ever focused on military and civil Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) use. When asked if the U.S. commercial development lag was not due to only slow legislation, but also a technology stall, Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of defense and intelligence systems at Hughes Network Systems, was quick to disagree.
“I think the technical will be solved, it’s probably the regulation [we’re] waiting on,” he said. Stuart Daughtridge, VP of advanced technology and business development at Integral Systems Kratos Company, however, said not only technology, but also culture and regulation mean the lag will continue for some time. “I think you’ll see driverless cars before you see the FAA allow UAVs in commercial airspace,” he said.
Meanwhile, military demand soars. Sensor and backhaul demand are on the rise as UAV capabilities have grown from covering only one kilometer on the battlefield, to covering several 10- to 12-kilometer areas simultaneously, requiring 2.2 megapixels per spot and bandwidth of 4 to 8 megabits per second per coverage area, according to Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Howard Pace of ViaSat Inc.
Since military operators now require more battlefield sensing capability with lower Size Weight and Power (SWAP) specs, the requisite power sent up to achieve increased sensing means interference for satellites, requiring closer management. “You take a look at the future, right now we’re seeing sensors with gigapixels of requirements, at 65 different spots, looking at much wider efforts than ever before. Tomorrow’s demand on the system is going to be extraordinary compared to what we have seen over the last few years … 100 of megabits per second per air bit,” said Pace.
When asked if these military advances will lead to potential commercial applications, Pace said future developments will determined by the customer. “Everyone on this panel will say that demand will continue to exponentially increase … we have the highest throughput satellite holders in the world, that has great promise but at the same time we are out to meet the customers demand and whatever the customers demand is what we’re going to do to our network.”
Stuart Daughtridge, VP of advanced technology and business development at Integral Systems Kratos Company, cited developments that are happening currently, however, describing test drones operating in Sacramento that fly at supersonic speeds, perform turns at 12 G’s, cost between $500,000 and $1 million per piece, and can be reused.
“That’s what you’re going to see, UAVs that are going to operate in conflicted airspace. … We now assume you’re going to see UAVs that operate in non-conflicted airspace. That’s going to create a lot of problems, frequency hopping, signal spreading, they don’t fit well into the current FSS [Fixed Satellite Service]. It’s very expensive to do the frequency hopping,” said Daughtridge.
In order to make such future UAVs possible for commercial and military use, Daughtridge said Kratos is developing no cost ways to efficient bandwidth to enable communications needed for supersonic UAVs and other future UAS tech. “If you’re going to have UAVs operating in commercial airspace, you’ve got to figure the FAA is not thrilled if you can’t keep positive link control to that UAV,” said Daughtridge. “It’s going to be a key area not only to the military but to the whole market going forward.”
Kenneth Turner, deputy director of the Department of Defense Chief Information Office, sided with Pace, and claimed that emerging technologies and satellites start off slowly and operate by meeting challenges as they come, rather than anticipating them. “Between the government and industry, you tackle the problem, address the problem, solve the problem. … I think, not pre-defining what the commercial market is for UAVs, whether it’s delivery systems or something else that people are looking at, that is actually determined by what you are trying to do.”
While the slow regulatory pace of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to regulate commercial UAV use stalls U.S. development, Turner took a tone of patience. “The regulations, the framework will grow with whatever comes along, [ensuring it’s] safe, secure, affordable.” One company, like Kratos, however, is eager for development and not content to wait. Insitu has begun offshore oil surveillance work in Alaska, demonstrating safety and capability alongside the FAA and helping regulations come faster, according to Insitu Chief Technological Officer Charlie Guthrie, who was not present at the panel. Guthrie also said Insitu has performed work with UAV sensors to locate oil hot spots amidst ice fields.
Northrop Grumman’s Enterprise Director of Business and Strategy Development John VanBrabant has ideas to move in the direction of Insitu. “I’m waiting to slap on a spectral sensor and start flying wheat fields in the U.S.,” said VanBrabant. He doesn’t feel there are so many barriers to going into commercial airspace. “Operating UAVs in the civil airspace, if you ask me it’s easy, but it’s really an issue of flying unmanned aircraft … they’re among manned aircraft with passengers. … Ours spiral up to above commercial or military airplanes, that’s part of the way we view it is that we can stay out of harm’s way, but you have to come down through that controlled airspace,” said VanBrabant.
Away from commercial demand, Turner said new military UAV capability needs and shifting world conflicts will drive future needs. “We have to go other places not as concentrated, more dispersed,” he said, adding that budgets are also meanwhile decreasing. Pace agreed, and said un-served demand is everywhere from the need for affordable bandwidth to line of sight. “Un-served demand is in the eye of the beholder, if you’re that platoon soldier and you don’t have beyond line of sight capability and it limits you tactically, you would say that’s a real problem.”