Do defense avionics and electronics suppliers have a head start?
As the Federal Aviation Administration prepares new guidelines for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the U.S. national airspace, startups and aeronautic mainstays are chomping at the bit to start selling drones for commercial ventures, from filming to crop scouting to inspecting oil pipelines. Some market forecasts like this one from Markets and Markets and this one from Business Insider expect the size of the commercial market for sUAS to grow significantly over the next decade. I believe they are right, but what is up for grabs is, Who will get the lion’s share of the market? Will it be the startups like Airware and PrecisionHawk or the defense suppliers like Lockheed-Martin Procerus Technologies and AeroVironment?
I recently came across this this article in Military Embedded Systems and was struck by some of the comments. The article starts with this assertion:
“Most analysts expect the commercial market for unmanned aircraft to eventually dwarf that of the military market. Unmanned aircraft systems have changed the face of modern warfare and created a huge opportunity for electronics suppliers that provide systems for the UAS payloads, ground control stations, and flight controls.”
It goes on to quote Ron Stearns, Research Director at G2 Solutions:
“Companies who will have the biggest head start in [the commercial UAS] market will be defense avionics and electronics suppliers who have been there and done that with this technology,” he continues. “However, it is a very different operating space for them, akin to a purely commercial electronics company trying to sell in the military procurement realm.”
What struck me first is the assertion that the commercial market for UAS will dwarf that of the military. Neither the Markets and Markets or Business Insider forecasts show that. Business Insider is perhaps the most rational, as they predict that 12% of an estimated $98 billion in cumulative global spending on aerial drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes.
Second, there is little evidence that those same suppliers that benefited from military drones will benefit from the eventual commercial applications of this technology. It is not – as the Military Embedded Systems article suggests – an R&D problem. I believe the vast differences in the ways these firms go to market is the problem that will, in fact, “throw a wrench in that transition.”
As background, I suggest taking a look at a piece I wrote back in March 2014; The Business of Drones: A Tale of Two Cities lays out the issues and the advantages of each camp. Since that time, I have attended the Precision Aerial Ag show and Ohio UAS Conference and witnessed the advancement of off-the-shelf open source technology and the go-to-market practices of commercial UAS aircraft produced independent of government contracts or sub-contracts.
Third, I see no evidence that supports the claim that defense avionics and electronic suppliers have the biggest head start. In fact I see just the opposite. Take, for example, the software platform that runs small UAS for commercial use. You would think that when NASA solicited collaboration from outside organizations for its UAS Traffic Management (UTM) research and development to enable sUAS operations at lower altitudes, Lockheed-Martin would have jumped at that opportunity. After all, they are an existing NASA contractor, and their Kestrel 3.0 autopilot avionics technologies incorporates data from a suite of sensors and GPS to create an accurate estimate of the vehicle’s location and orientation. They also make the Stalker UAS, which is the same size and weight class as many enterprise level sUAS like the PrecisionHawk Lancaster. But they didn’t. Instead, San Francisco startup Airware answered the call. You can see that announcement here.
NASA plans to test UTM capabilities to safely enable low-altitude operations and operational requirements for wind/weather integration, airspace design/geo-fencing, sense-and-avoid/separation management, demand/capacity imbalance management, contingency management, and enabling requirements such as communications, navigation, and surveillance. The outcome of this research is bound to impact the future market for sUAS technology in the commercial markets, and collaborating parties will receive valuable performance data about their assets and ability to operate in the mixed airspace. In this regard, I think Airware has the head start.
There are other examples of where non-military vendors – especially those in Silicon Valley – have surpassed their military counterparts. Look for those in future “The Market” articles. In the meantime, feel free to write me at [email protected] and tell me what you think—will startups or defense contractors get the lion’s share of the commercial sUAS market? Or another party?