Major UAS manufacturers share plans, visions

By Patrick C. Miller | September 22, 2015

Three of the big hitters among UAS manufacturers and operators—Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Textron Systems—shared some of their plans, insights and visions with attendees of the 9th Annual UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Doug Davis, Northrup Grumman director of airworthiness, spoke on the technical challenges and needs of integrating UAS into the national airspace. Dan Fritz, director of international programs for General Atomics, provided details on the company’s plans for a UAS training academy at the Grand Sky UAS park adjacent to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. David Phillips, vice president small and medium-endurance UAS for Textron Systems Unmanned Systems, discussed the company’s efforts to transition from the military to commercial UAS market.

Davis said the U.S. is still in the UAS accommodation phase when it should be in the integration phase.

“We’re not technically developed to the point where they (UAS) are seamlessly integrated into the airspace system,” he said

The key to moving forward is sense-and-avoid technology for UAS collision avoidance, he noted.

“That is nirvana; it’s an important part of the solution, but not the answer to everybody’s problems, especially with civil regulators,” Davis said.

Other needs Davis listed were a data link with a frequency spectrum specifically for UAS operations; automatic takeoff and landing technology; system security solutions; systems-wide integration management; and the ability to control landings from beyond line of sight.

While noting that the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) devices that will be required for all aircraft by 2020 is “awesome technology,” Davis said its drawback is that it relies on GPS as its backbone, and it can’t be the sole source for UAS. 

According to Davis, it’s also important to think of UAS technology development from a global perspective.

“Our customers want to take the assets that we’re building and fly them globally,” he explained.

Davis believes that the FAA is devoting too much time to small UAS, which he said is “sucking up bandwidth of the regulators.”

He credited the FAA for developing an advisory circular on the development of large UAVs to assist the manufacturing community.

“They’re not creating anything new, which is important,” Davis said. “You want to know what bar it is that you have to hit. It’s encouraging that the regulators get that. It’s encouraging.”

Following Monday’s announcement that General Atomics will be opening of a UAS training academy, Fritz said the new facility would serve to address the training shortfall for its civilian customers, but hoped that it could also eventually assist the U.S. Air Force and Army in meeting their pilot shortages.

General Atomics signed a 10-year lease and expects to break ground soon. Flight crew training will begin early next year and the company expects to bring in its first foreign military sales customers soon after.

Working with industry training experts, academia and North Dakota’s UAS industry, the training academy will provide state-of-the-art flight instruction to aircrews operating General Atomics aircraft, Fritz said.

Frank Pace, president of General Atomics aircraft systems, said, “We selected North Dakota as the site for our new training academy because it offered an unequaled opportunity to support both our U. S. Air Force customer and international customers.”

Phillips noted that the challenge for Textron Systems is adapting its military UAS platforms—proven in some of the most difficult environments and situations—to the commercial world where there are some similarities and differences. The markets in which the company is most interested is in linear infrastructure, such as pipelines, roads, transmission lines and railroads, he said.

“All customers want reliability and flexibility and business agility,” he said.

On the reliability side, Phillips noted that Textron’s Aerosonde system operated in Afghanistan for 21 months while flying 16 missions a day at a 98 percent availability rate. And while some might think military UAS are too expensive, Phillips said, “We are able to make these systems affordable in the commercial space.”

Textron Systems has focused on being agile and flexible to meet the needs of its business customers. For example, Phillips said some companies aren’t interested in buying an entire unmanned system, but will hire Textron to fly and provide data. Other companies that want to buy a UAS can receive flight and maintenance training on the air platform and ground control station from Textron.

Phillips stressed that company has experience in flying UAS for law enforcement missions, the oil and gas industry, wildfire surveillance, mapping and surveying, wildlife surveys, and Arctic and hurricane research.

“The aircraft is really a truck,” Phillips noted. “It better be a safe, reliable truck to carry payloads. It needs to be easily adaptable and be able to adapt by plug in different payloads in the field.”


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