Maryland sees a future in drones

In a cavernous production facility at AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Hunt Valley, workers assemble remote-control planes that help U.S. forces identify enemy targets.

At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, researchers work to make drones behave like insects, communicating among themselves as they perform a task together.

And at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, the Navy is testing a new unmanned jet flier designed to take off from and land on aircraft carriers.

Manufacturers such as AAI, Lockheed Martin and others, research at Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and elsewhere, and testing at the Patuxent station and Aberdeen Proving Ground have combined to make the state a center of a burgeoning global industry.

"The market is going to grow exponentially," said Mike Hayes, the retired Marine Corps general who heads the state's office of military and federal affairs. "And then, as the [Federal Aviation Administration] comes to grips with airspace issues and safety associated with unmanned systems, the potential for growth is even more dramatic.

"Within Maryland, because of a combination of our universities, our federal installations and then some of the private-sector folks that are already involved, we think we're very well-positioned to participate."

The industry faces challenges. With the United States out of Iraq and drawing forces down in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has ordered the Pentagon to slow the growth of future spending. Congress is stalemated over a budget deal needed to forestall additional cuts.

The growing reliance on unmanned aircraft, meanwhile, has sparked controversy. Critics have said that using weaponized drones to kill individuals overseas is akin to assassination, and have protested the attendant civilian casualties.

Civil libertarians have expressed concern about the introduction of surveillance aircraft to domestic airspace, even as companies promote their value for such uses as watching borders and monitoring traffic.

And there remain concerns about the safe integration of manned and unmanned air traffic in the skies over the United States — concerns stoked in part by incidents such as the June crash of an RQ-4A Global Hawk on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Still, as an expanding roster of countries use unmanned aircraft to fly a widening array of missions, industry officials and analysts expect spending on drones to grow.

The Teal Group, a Virginia firm that tracks the aerospace and defense industries, estimates the global market for unmanned aerial vehicles will nearly double over the next decade to $11.4 billion.

"What we see is some immediate pressure in the U.S. on [unmanned aerial vehicle] spending," said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group. "But over the next few years, there will be pressure upwards because of the focus on the next generation of systems."

International spending, meanwhile, will more than triple over the next 10 years, Finnegan says.

State officials see gains for Maryland.

Hayes' office counts at least two dozen businesses in the state that work on unmanned aircraft. They range from small, specialty firms that produce components to aircraft manufacturers such as AAI and Lockheed Martin, maker of the K-MAX cargo helicopter and the Desert Hawk III surveillance plane, among others.

"We think we are very well-positioned to be at the forefront of wherever this path leads us," Hayes said.

Maryland institutions are helping to blaze the trail. In June, the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory demonstrated with Boeing that an operator on the ground with limited training, and using only a laptop and a military radio, can command a swarm of unmanned vehicles.

The swarm technology developed by the laboratory enables drones to communicate and act in concert to complete tasks more quickly and efficiently.

Last month, the Patuxent River station, home of the Navy's principal air test range on the East Coast, hosted the successful first flight of Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned combat system.

The Navy is testing the tail-less, V-shaped aircraft, which flew for 35 minutes over the Chesapeake Bay on July 29, as it looks to develop its first carrier-based drone.

Matt Funk, the Navy's lead engineer on the project, says drones offer several advantages over manned aircraft.

"One is the deep-threat or the high-threat areas — you don't risk losing pilots, loss of life if the aircraft gets shot down," he said. "There's also persistence and endurance. So where a manned pilot can only go for a certain number of hours before human fatigue sets in, this aircraft can keep going and keep going and keep going until it runs out of fuel.

"Once we demonstrate aerial fueling, we're talking about mission endurances that go well beyond 20, 40 hours before it has to come back for maintenance."

The X-47B is also autonomous — capable of flying on its own, and making adjustments, as necessary, to complete its preprogrammed flight plan.

Funk said the introduction of such aircraft on carriers is seen as "a game-changer in that it changes all the rules of ... airpsace dominance."

Finnegan, the industry analyst, expects drones to become "more capable."

"They will be designed to be effective in penetrating defended airspace," he said.

"What we had in Iraq and Afghanistan, we weren't dealing with sophisticated air defenses. But in potential conflicts in the future, that is an issue. And so these systems will have more stealth, they'll have greater power, they'll have greater autonomy so if their communication is cut off, they can continue to do their mission."

At AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, General Manager Steven Reid is "cautiously optimistic" about the future.

The operation, a unit of Textron Systems, makes the Shadow drone flown by both the Army and the Marines in Afghanistan and beyond.

The firm won contracts recently to fly its Aerosonde unmanned aircraft for the Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command. It's looking to foreign militaries eager to acquire drones, and talking with the FAA about regulations for opening U.S. airspace to civilian and commercial uses.

"We're planning for a constrained marketplace," Reid said. "But at the end, the technology almost drives itself into the marketplace."

AAI traces its involvement in the industry to the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. After the attack, Israeli officials showed U.S. officials footage they had recorded with unmanned aircraft, and the Marines wanted the same technology.

The Pioneer RQ-2A, developed in a joint venture by AAI and Israel Aircraft Industries, was used by the Army, Navy and Marines in the 1991 Persian Gulf War for reconaissance, surveillance, targeting and battle damage assessment.

A Pioneer launched from the battleship USS Wisconsin during that war was assessing damage to targets on Faylaka Island near Kuwait City when several Iraqi soldiers attempted to surrender to the aircraft. U.S. troops nearby took the Iraqis prisoner. It is believed to have been the first time in history that human beings had tried to surrender to a machine.

AAI developed the Shadow RQ-7B by itself, and won an Army contract 1999. Now every brigade in the Army has one Shadow system, consisting of four aircraft, a launcher and a ground control station. The Marines and Special Operations Command also have flown Shadows in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Shadow is what really lit the fuse here," said Reid, the general manager. AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems has grown from 50 employees in the 1990s to nearly 1,100 today.

Australia and Sweden have purchased Shadow systems, and the National Guard has flown them overseas and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Industry officials see unmanned aircraft watching borders, monitoring traffic, measuring weather and tracking wildfires. The FAA estimates that 10,000 civilian drones will be in use within five years.

AAI has flown its Aerosonde aircraft into hurricanes for the National Weather Service and is preparing for an ice-mapping mission in the Antarctic.

Reid says the firm has a group tracking developments in the emerging civilian market.

"Our business is military. Our focus is military," he said. "But we're intrigued with the potential for commercial applications."

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