Alfred Lumpkin

Brighter days ahead for unmanned systems

With the pending drawdown of U.S. armed forces in Iraq, many in our industry have asked the question, “What will become of the unmanned systems industry that has contributed greatly to the fight against the global war on terror?” “What does less boots on the ground mean for an industry that has played such a vital role in providing mission essential services?”

Statistics and testimonials of those serving in theater indicate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have played a vital role in fighting the enemy and keeping our men and women out of harm's way by providing the necessary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for mission fulfillment.

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We believe the future to be extremely bright for the industry because it is poised to serve any mission for the Defense and State departments and also for law enforcement and other civilian agencies. Despite the military drawdown in Iraq and the pending drawdown in Afghanistan, we remain optimistic about the continued growth in unmanned systems and services. UAS will remain a priority in war zones and in future conflicts, not only for the larger Group 4 and Group 5 platforms, but increasingly so for smaller, field-deployed systems at the brigade and battalion level. We believe there will be extensive growth in unmanned systems use among nations that recognize the high reliability and low cost of using unmanned platforms. 

While DOD will continue to support unmanned missions, operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan will be transitioning from DOD to State Department control. Indications from State are there will be a continued need for UAS services in those regions because operations of manned platforms have been found to be expensive and safety-challenged. As the number of State representatives assigned to higher risk areas escalates, there will be a strong need for UAS operations to ensure the safe transport of diplomatic missions throughout those regions. The use of unmanned systems will drastically enhance their mission capability and success. Diplomatic safety will be a priority for the government and that safety will be provided by experienced companies that specialize in force protection and diplomatic security. 

Meanwhile, many U.S. government agencies are flying unmanned systems. Although it's small, the market should remain steady. For example, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency has budgeted for the procurement of additional systems and State has issued its first solicitation for UAS support.  We feel the commercial market will also expand in the future as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to work toward a regulatory system to incorporate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the national airspace. For example, oil companies are flying UAVs to inspect oil rigs and drilling sites. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA also see the value in deploying unmanned systems for hurricane surveillance, mammal surveys and monitoring ice flows.  

The drawdown from the Central Command will most likely occur. However, the possible redeployment of troops in areas where al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are solidifying their foothold, namely in Northern Africa and Southeast Asia, is not unexpected.  Additionally, troop involvement in Latin America is a strong possibility as the importation of illegal drugs and gang violence persist in and around their borders. Agencies other than DOD will feel compelled to use small, tactical UAVs for missions that involve narcotics smuggling, counterterrorism, piracy, ocean surveillance and border patrol.

We live in a world that continues to be mired in wars and rumors of wars; however, we are fortunate to have a mature industry poised to help make a difference for those in harm's way. Wherever there is a threat of terrorist activity or other security threats in the world, we will still need ISR capability from unmanned systems. Unmanned systems have proven to be reliable and far less costly than manned assets and safer to operate. We predict strong growth potential even in these times of fiscal austerity, both internationally and domestically.

About the Author

Alfred Lumpkin is CEO and founder of the ISR Group.

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