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Big News From Big UAS Manufacturers

For those who covered the UAS Summit & Expo this week, there was plenty of news and interesting discussion about a variety of topics related to the future of the UAS industry.
By Patrick C. Miller | September 24, 2015

Sometimes I go to an event hoping to find something newsworthy to write about, but then struggle to come up with a topic. Such was not the case during the Ninth Annual UAS Summit & Expo this week at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., generated national headlines Monday morning by announcing that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was signing a 10-year lease as a tenant at the Grand Sky UAS park adjacent to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The company will build a 16,000-square-foot academy to train up to 60 international crews.

The next day, Dan Fritz, director of international programs for General Atomics, provided more details on how the company will create the new facility to help cover the pilot shortfall for its overseas customers flying the Predator and Reaper UAS platforms. He expressed hope that the U.S. Air Force and Army would eventually take advantage of the training academy to meet their demand for pilots.

Fritz also spoke Wednesday during the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) official public meeting on the North Dakota UAS Test Site. He mentioned General Atomics’ program with the NASA, the FAA and Honeywell to develop sense-and-avoid technology and minimum operational performance standards. Thus far, that activity has taken place at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, but Fritz held out the possibility that the North Dakota UAS Test Site could also assist with some of the research in the future.

Northrup Grumman was at the UAS Summit in a big way, demonstrating its Firebird optionally manned aircraft and giving tours of the ground control station that operates it. Many people temporarily convened to the convention’s center’s parking lot to watch the Firebird fly passes overhead.

Doug Davis, Northrup Grumman director of airworthiness, spoke at the summit on the technological challenges that must be addressed before UAS can be safely integrated into the national airspace. Tops on the list was sense-and-avoid technology, which he referred to as “the nirvana.” He was optimistic that some key technology issues are close to being solved, but less hopeful on others.

Davis also addressed another subject that didn’t receive much attention, but is becoming more of a theme among the major manufacturers who seem to be growing impatient with the attention Amazon and Google receive with their UAS package delivery plans. Davis suggested that the FAA is devoting too much time to small UAS, “sucking up bandwidth of the regulators.”

In the UAS industry, Textron Systems can sometimes come off as a lesser-known manufacturer. Fortunately, David Phillips, vice president of small and medium-endurance UAS for Textron Systems Unmanned Systems, was on hand to explain why the perception doesn’t match the reality. When it comes to beyond-line-of-sight capability, the company has more than 100,000 hours of experience with its Aerosonde platform flying in extreme conditions and difficult environments for civil and military customers all over the world. Nearly all of those hours are beyond-line-of-sight missions.

To emphasize the capabilities of Textron’s Aerosonde UAV, Phillips noted that the company has been assisting the U.S. Department of Interior this month in flying missions over wildfires in Idaho, providing real-time data to firefighters on the ground. In the U.S., he said the markets in which Textron is most interested are in linear infrastructure which includes pipelines, roads, transmission lines and railroads.

Of course, at an event like this, there were plenty of new UAS industry connections to make among businesses big and small that were willing to share their thoughts, plans and ideas. Thanks for being there and giving us your time. The UAS Magazine team plenty of new information to digest and story ideas to pursue in the coming months.