The unmanned vehicles industry is in the midst of a fundamental transformation-one that will see designers of unmanned vehicles that operate in the air, on the ground, and at sea move from a Wild-West startup mentality to a mature, self-regulating business model.
This transformation may not be apparent at first glance. Last month's Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington had plenty of the Wild West on display, such as a plethora of quad-propeller, radio-controlled helicopters with camera packs that have become popular of late.
The unmanned vehicle industry has been wide-open for quite a while, but the increasing use of these devices and its inevitable clash with concerns for public safety and individual privacy will bring this phase to a close, and probably sooner rather than later.
We are seeing the first step in this industry transformation with the unmanned vehicle community's embrace of open-system, standards-based design. As the industry matures, and as an increasing number of unmanned vehicles are built to operate in public airspace, design standards are necessary to design reliable systems at affordable costs.
Don't get me wrong; I value individual initiative in unmanned vehicle design. The ability to design and build a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) inexpensively, mount it with a small HD camera, and fly it close to the ground is breakthrough technology.
Still, UAVs increasingly must operate in public airspace alongside manned, commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. It's unacceptable for UAVs to fall out of the sky and hurt people on the ground, much less collide with a commercial aircraft and kill perhaps hundreds of innocents.
The same issues apply for public waterways and land expanses. Unmanned vehicle designers must ensure that their devices operate safely, reliably, and at affordable costs. All this means industry standards, as well as industry and government certifications.
"This whole industry is becoming more standards-based," observed Chip Downing, senior director of business development for aerospace and defense at real-time software specialist Wind River Systems in Alameda, Calif., during AUVSI.
Downing has been watching the unmanned vehicle industry transformation close-up, as his company has broad expertise in safety-critical, real-time software for manned and unmanned aircraft. Safety and reliability, he says is driving change.
"The real industry expansion is using these UAVs in civil airspace," Downing says. "The next generation will have communications among all aircraft," which will involve manned and unmanned aircraft for sense-and-avoid capability.
"All-digital, and all-automated is the next step," Downing says. While some might consider such a step to be unsafe, Downing points out those UAVs, if operated safely and according to established procedures, even might be safer in the long run than manned aircraft.
"There is no reaction time on an unmanned aircraft," Downing points out. The notion of pilot error most likely will be unheard of in future fleets of UAVs.
Although it may represent a cultural leap for the public to accept unmanned aircraft operating nearby manned commercial aircraft in civil airspace, this would seem to represent the wave of future.