Sanctions, security and drones that fight

July 17, 2019  - By
Photo: Kratos

Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack (Photo: Boeing)

With tariffs, trade wars and sanctions ruling the day, how is a self-respecting UAS manufacturer supposed to make a buck? And to whom are the manufacturers of defense UAS able to sell their wares?

To NATO and other friendly countries, comes the ready answer, but there may still be a problem selling drones with armaments and offensive capabilities. Another layer of governmental review could swing into action when a company wants to sell to friendly countries like Saudi Arabia or perhaps to allies within the old Russian USSR block.

Last year, General Atomics lost sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for Predators and/or Reapers, large-bodied medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft systems (or MALES). The deal went instead to a competing Chinese outfit. General Atomics complained bitterly about the loss of this business, which it blamed on restrictive U.S. export rules. The Administration responded by apparently loosening the regulations, in fact easing the way for most international sales. In response, it is possible that UAV manufacturers have also undertaken some changes which make U.S. drones even more competitive for export.

Business matters appear to have improved significantly. In May this year, the State Department actually used emergency provisions within the Arms Control Act to bypass Congressional review of a proposed sale to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan of a package of Insitu Blackjack drones and launchers, worth $80 million.

The competition for world-wide sales of U.S. UAS products is increasingly tough, especially against Chinese suppliers with equivalent or perhaps less capable mil-spec drones. Hence the export rule changes which now appear to be working in the right direction.

Chinese Drones in the U.S.

Meanwhile, in an effort to accommodate U.S. concerns about the potential for user data somehow “leaking” to DJI — the Chinese supplier of almost 75% of U.S. drone purchases — DJI has implemented a “Government Edition” which apparently addresses the risk of data loss.

When US-based 3D Robotics stopped supplying 3DR Solo drones, the Interior Department found itself in a bind, as it had already bought hundreds of these devices for its inspection/surveillance operations. As the department searched for a new source for UAVs, it came to the conclusion that U.S. supplied drones were much less capable or up to ten times more expensive than equivalent DJI units. So they began working with DJI to solve the issue with potential data loss, and went on to test the results extensively

Working with the U.S. Interior Department for over 18 months, DJI has equipped drones and their controllers with modified hardware and custom software that ensure that the drones only operate in local data mode: information collected in flight is stored on the UAV alone and must be manually downloaded after flight. The drone is actually loaded with custom software by the user prior to flight to ensure this mode of data collection.

Even with these modifications, for now the use of DJI drones is still restricted to non-sensitive applications.

USAF/Kratos XQ-58A

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic UAV completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019, at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (Phodto: U.S. Defense Department)

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic UAV completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019, at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (Photo: U.S. Defense Department)

Kratos is working with the U.S. Air Force to develop a jet-powered UAV system that can fly alongside manned fighter aircraft to multiply their effectiveness. At much lower cost than manned aircraft, the concept appears to be that more risk can be taken with the ‘loyal wingman’ UAVs to not only support the mission of the attack aircraft, but to also keep it safe.

We reported earlier on the XQ-58A after its first flight in March of this year. Now the Valkyrie is back in the flight test program with its second flight lasting 71 minutes over the Yuma test range on June 11. In the long- erm, it is hoped that both ground controllers and flight crew would operate these extensively autonomous drones.

A parallel “Skyborg” program is also underway to develop the hardware and artificial intelligence software capability to enable this type of drone to fly and fight alongside manned aircraft.

In conclusion, trade wars and tariffs aside, let’s hope that good UAV products can still make headway on their merits alone.

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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).