Jill Meyers and the other managers at 3D Robotics Inc. share a love of flying and an enthusiasm for what the company’s small unmanned aircraft might do in the commercial space.
Based in Berkeley with engineering and manufacturing in Otay Mesa and Tijuana, 3D Robotics makes small unmanned helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, plus the software to run them.
“Our goal is to have large commercial customers,” Meyers said before a San Diego audience recently. “We hope to be the enterprise solution for aerial survey.”
Standing in the company’s way, however, is the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress has instructed the agency to open U.S. airspace to unmanned aircraft by September of 2015, though speakers at the California Unmanned Aircraft Systems Summit on June 10 in Point Loma said the agency will likely miss that deadline.
Doing so will likely cost the United States $10 billion per year, said
Gretchen West, executive vice president with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.
With military use plateauing, growth in the unmanned aircraft business seems to be squarely in the commercial sector. Unmanned aircraft makers are champing at the bit to get access to U.S. domestic airspace. That was one theme that emerged during the gathering that brought together 300 business people, military leaders and others interested in the unmanned systems business. Another theme was whether California — which spawned unmanned aircraft leaders such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp. — could maintain its leadership status.
As yet it’s not legal to fly unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes in the United States. But the FAA is starting to make exceptions to the rules, notably for the oil industry, and possibly for filmmakers.
Christopher Ames, an executive with the aircraft unit of privately held General Atomics, said getting unfettered access to the national airspace is his company’s next challenge.
“We want the same access as manned aircraft,” Ames said.
Unmanned aircraft have the potential to help farming, ranching, wildlife monitoring, pollution monitoring, industrial logistics, firefighting, and search and rescue, West said.
Citing data from the Teal Group Corp., West said the global market for unmanned aircraft will be $140 billion over the next 10 years.
West said the economic impact of unmanned aircraft in domestic airspace will exceed $13.6 billion in the first three years and $82.1 billion in the span between 2015 and 2025 — that is, if the FAA proceeds on schedule. The industry has the potential to add more than 12,000 jobs in California during the first three years, the same report said.
For its part, the FAA is concerned about safety, and some speakers said it is probably best for the agency to be cautious.
One thing the agency wants is “sense and avoid” capability, which would let an unmanned vehicle detect obstructions and change its path accordingly. Ames said GA-ASI is answering that call, putting its own funds into developing Due Regard, a sense-and-avoid radar system that the company demonstrated in November in Palmdale.
GA-ASI’s 6,300 employees build the Predator and Reaper — large, long-endurance aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army markets. So far the business has produced 675 aircraft in 17 variations, Ames said.
FAA Approves First Commercial Use
The conference happened during an historic week, when the FAA announced it approved the first commercial drone flights over land in the United States. The agency’s approval was limited to the oil company BP PLC (NYSE: BP), which will conduct surveys of the largest oilfield in the nation, at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The oil company is using a Puma drone made by AeroVironment Inc. (Nasdaq: AVAV), a $240 million company based in the Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia.
Earlier in the month, the FAA said it would consider granting a petition from seven private companies that want to use unmanned aircraft for aerial photography and video production. The Motion Picture Association of America represented the companies before the agency. The drones would fly on a closed set so there would not be any privacy issues, West said.
West added that the United States could be close to approving drone use for agriculture.
The FAA set up six areas within the Lower 48 and Alaska to test commercial uses for drones. The nearest is in Nevada.
The beauty of drones is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Speakers at the conference said that the general public typically views unmanned aircraft negatively, associating them with weapons or thinking of them as camera-carrying snoops.
General Atomic’s Ames said he thought the exciting aspect of unmanned aircraft is something that most people do not consider. The general public typically focuses on the “truck” or the aircraft itself. Yet a complete system, Ames said, is a “triumvirate” that also includes a ground control station and a payload. And it’s those payloads — which are bound to get better sensors and generally become more sophisticated — that Ames will be watching as they evolve.
Not everyone is going commercial.
Gerald Beaman of Kratos Defense & Security Solutions Inc. said his company did not want to get into that side of the business, preferring to focus on high-speed military aircraft. Kratos (Nasdaq: KTOS) is based in University City and manufactures its unmanned aircraft in the Sacramento area. If Kratos needs to expand its plant, the retired vice admiral told his audience, the business has “every intention to bring capability closer to home.”