Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Market is Ready to Take Off

There are an infinite number of things UAVs could do domestically - even deliver pizza.


The flights are coordinated with air traffic controllers and are safe, said Peter Dumont, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Air Traffic Control Association, a nonprofit that promotes the advancement of aviation and has members that manufacture UAVs. He expects the integration will go smoothly.

"We don't have any concerns because we think the FAA has experience integrating different airframes into commercial air space," from turboprop engines to the supersonic Concorde, Dumont said. "They seem to be doing all they can to do it safely."

Safety concerns

But the union that represents the nation's air traffic controllers has reservations.

"It's a very concerning issue to us, in terms of how it would impact the traffic that's within our control," said Doug Church, spokesman for the Washington-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It's something we need to take a closer look at."

AAI's Reid points out that his company's UAVs are taking off and landing in between military aircraft and cargo planes around the clock from Iraq's Balad airport, without incident.

Using such UAVs at home could have been valuable in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Reid said. Equipped with infrared imaging, the drone would have been able to detect warm bodies through the rooftops and alert rescue teams, saving valuable time. But the Army's 82nd Airborne Division was not allowed to deploy AAI's Shadow, which was frustrating, Reid said.

UAVs have evolved drastically since they were first used during World War I. Back then, they were radio-controlled and had limited range. Today, they can be piloted from thousands of miles away - via satellite - or programmed to fly on their own with GPS. Footage from their digital cameras can be downloaded in real-time to a laptop in a Humvee. Because they involve more than just aircraft, the Defense Department now calls them "unmanned aircraft systems," or UAS.

They also have been armed. In November 2002, the CIA directed a Predator drone to fire a missile at a car in Yemen, killing six al-Qaida members. Both Lockheed and Northrop Grumman Corp., which employs thousands of people in Maryland, are developing unmanned bombers.

AAI introduced its first UAV, Pioneer, in 1985. It was deployed during the first Gulf War and flew during the conflicts in Bosnia and Somalia.

In 1999, AAI won a contract from the Army to develop the Shadow Tactical UAS. The Army has so far ordered 70 and logged 129,000 flight hours.

The company recently installed control stations in Stryker vehicles. Hours after one such installation, a group of soldiers reported back that they were able to see an insurgent plant an improvised explosive device ahead of the vehicle, avoiding a potentially deadly incident.

"For it to be happening a half-mile down the road, and you're watching it - well, that's pretty neat," Reid said.

Late last month, the company won a contract to develop a ground control station dubbed the "One System" that allows the Army to control various unmanned aircraft from a single video console, regardless of whether the drone was built by AAI or a competitor. The system would be useful to air traffic controllers trying to track multiple drones here, Reid said.

`Flying trashcans'

Michael Lewis, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets who covers AAI Corp. and whose firm does or expects to do business with AAI, said there is near-term demand from law enforcement for "flying trashcans" - small vehicles that fly from building to building, conducting surveillance from the rooftops.

AAI recently built a similar Micro Air Vehicle, or MAV, for Honeywell for a potential contract with the Army. With a fan-like engine at its base, it takes off vertically and can "hover and stare" for 40 minutes at a time.

Still, he said, the domestic market is still several years out, and he doesn't yet factor it into his evaluation of UAV companies.

"It's great to talk about, but I think there's a lot of work to be done," Lewis said.\



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