Few system categories have undergone such radical transformation in the last decade as has the category of Unmanned Airborne Systems (UAS). The UAS revolution stands shoulder to shoulder with the break-in of cyber into our lives, the renewed prosperity of the field of air defense and the constant progress made by the field of intelligence. Unlike the other fields, however, the aspect that is unique to the UAS field is the transformation from highly-specialized weapon systems designed exclusively for military use to a popular sensor that constitutes a model of the IoT, providing the user public with readily-available aerial technology for both civilian and military applications. The immediate outcome of this transformation is a modern era – reflected, for example, in the reemergence of the term "drone" – an old concept that has been re-assimilated, which in the past reflected a basic misunderstanding regarding the professional terminology of the industry. The primary characteristic of the new era is uncertainty – the strengthening and weakening of traditional "more and less" trends.
"More & Less" – a Renaissance Period: The technological progress made in the last decade has enabled the field of UAS, first and foremost, to offer enhanced UAS accessibility: UAS platforms are currently available to all. Until 2010, the circle of countries manufacturing high-quality, operationally-proven UAS consisted of less than ten members, with several US and Israeli manufacturers as leaders. Today, the manufacture of high-quality UAS is no longer the exclusive domain of western countries. In fact – it is no longer the exclusive domain of state entities. It also takes place at the level of such commercial organizations as Google, Amazon and Facebook. It has even reached a point where startup companies and even private individuals build Unmanned Airborne Vehicles with superior video capabilities, which until a decade ago would have been regarded as sheer fantasy.
Admittedly, fully-capable operational UAS are still produced exclusively by the major defense industries, but the current trend is very clear. Improvements in communication, optics, image processing, flight controls, computation capabilities, automation through Deep Learning and energy capabilities have led to a substantial expansion of the range of applications and the number of users. The issue of UAS has become so common and ordinary that since 2011, the number of results produced by the Google search engine in response to the word "Drones" has increased by 1,100%. Another figure that will clarify the extent of assimilation is the scope of platform registration in the USA (FAA). By the end of 2016, 204,408 manned aircraft were registered with the FAA, as opposed to more than 600,000 UAS. The current forecast for the year 2020 is more than 2.7 million registered platforms.
More Operational Needs & Applications: The US DRDO (Defense Research & Development Organization), the agency in charge of the development of defense technologies, has published, over the last two decades, several long-term plans for the field of unmanned systems (air, sea and land). Naturally, the aerial category accounts for the lion's share of those documents. A review of those plans over the years presents a substantial change in the number and types of missions assigned to UAS, from about 10 basic visual surveillance missions in the early 2000s to dozens of mission categories that include the use of various payload types, new spaces, etc. – for example, the use of UAS for air-defense missions. Some of the most prominent trends include the enhanced employment of UAS for strike missions (for example, by France – "France Arms Systems") and interoperability with manned platforms in the context of structured development and testing programs (mainly in the USA, e.g. MUMT). Another prominent trend is the expansion of experiments involving civilian applications as indicated, for example, by the market analyses of such commercial organizations as Frost & Sullivan. These analyses present a similar picture: the number of missions currently assigned to unmanned systems in the civilian field points to a substantial increase in the range of applications, far beyond the basic aerial photography capability.
More Opportunities, More Initiatives: The technological and market trends, along with the fact that the field has become more accessible to the masses and evolved into a common and readily-available resource, led to a situation where there are more opportunities for the employment of these platforms. This, in turn, has led to the prosperity of entrepreneurship involving the development and use of these systems. The UAS, a system of systems, encourages a multidisciplinary approach to its technological and applicative aspects. Composite materials, communications, computers, propulsion and energy, image processing and optics, along with such aspects as data processing and storing, user interfaces and the development of models for providing services have all led to the prospering of this field among private entrepreneurs, insurance companies, shipping companies and naturally – the information technology companies that identified the business potential of this field.
More Competition: The increase in the number of users and applications on the one hand and the number of manufacturers, on the other hand, has led to a revision of the rules of the game and intensified competition in the field of defense UAS. We can still find numerous success stories in the competition among Israeli UAS manufacturers, often because of the quality of their products or the flexibility of the business model used for the transactions (for example, the leasing model), but tremendous pressures are being exerted, in connection with the major transactions, by government circles worldwide with the intention of winning the UAS tenders.
More Threats: UAS for defense use are currently employed by numerous countries, as well as by militia and terrorist organizations. Large and small systems currently constitute a security threat that concerns military authorities, government organizations and even private companies that regard UAS invading the airspace above their facilities as a security threat. This applies not only to intrusion by hostile UAS from a foreign country, but also to the use of UAS for smuggling contraband into prisons or for intrusion into private installations. The worldwide effort involving the development of systems designed to stop/shoot down UAS using such "soft-kill" methods as jamming their communication and/or GPS or such "hard-kill" methods as laser-beam interception, is ample proof of these concerns.
More Risks: Despite the trend of increased awareness and more stringent safety requirements for the UAS field, in reality, more and more systems are being employed and the level of risk to uninvolved parties increases. In the military field, the regulatory processes in the western world are relatively structured and organized – for example, subject to the directives prescribed by NATO standards. Military organizations and corporations involved in this field demonstrate a high degree of responsibility while attempting to have this activity "mature" and raise safety standards in a manner that would enable UAS to be flown in civilian airspaces. On the other hand, the growing use of UAS in countries that do not accept these standards (such as those using the Chinese military systems or systems being developed by countries such as Iran) increases the risk to civil aviation and uninvolved parties. When the safety aspect is addressed in the context of the civilian UAS field, the perspective should be divided into two, as in the military field. As far as the commercial and professional use of UAS is concerned, the structured worldwide process of standardization makes this activity possible with a managed influence on the issue of safety and risks. However – the main risk currently faced by the civilian field is the widespread use of UAS as a popular hobby. This risk is reflected in drones being flown in high-risk areas, in the execution of flight profiles that exceed the system's limitations and so forth. The primary risk stems from unprofessional, irresponsible flying of the platforms by the human element.
More Regulation: In recent years, the civilian regulation process in the field of UAS has been characterized by extensive international activity of such organizations as JARUS (Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems, with 44 member states), ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and the aviation authorities of individual countries, in an attempt to regulate this activity. This trend must deal with the rapid progress made in the UAS field and with the scant and insufficient resources allocated to enforcement. As regulation often fails to keep up with the pace of the progress made in the field, the outcome, in many cases, is over-regulation that is also intended to make up for the lack of enforcement.
Less Uncertainty: The trend of accelerated progress in the field of UAS is a fait accompli. The global technological development of miniaturization, automation and data processing capabilities affects all of the aspects of our life and has found the field of unmanned aviation to be a fertile ground for future growth. Similarly to the question marks associated with these technologies, the uncertainty space associated with the field of UAS is expanding as well. The growth trend and general vector are very clear, but the actual path and operating space are becoming increasingly blurred instead of clarifying. Will the global competition lead to a continued increase in the number of manufacturers or to a converse trend of mergers and acquisitions (specifically – how many UAS manufacturers competing against one another can the State of Israel accommodate)? When can we expect the take-off of an unmanned transport aircraft alongside a passenger aircraft? Will the civilian UAS market or the military market become the largest UAS market in the future? How can the growth of the civilian UAS activity be integrated with manned aviation? What will the field look like after the first significant accident involving a passenger aircraft and a UAV?
Many of these questions could not even be asked a decade ago, as they would have been regarded as fantasy. We are living in very special times, similar to the times when the aviation world evolved, but with one significant difference – information and technology are currently much more readily available and accessible. The only certain thing we can predict is that in about 20 years from now, the second decade of the 21st century will emerge as the period of global breakthrough and beginning of the modern era in the field of UAS.
Alon Unger is the Chairman of the UVID Conference, to be held on November 9, 2017, at the Avenue Convention Center, Airport City, Israel.
For the conference website, click here.