Left on the Tarmac: UAVs at the 50th Paris Air Show
Grounded at the Paris Air Show: UAVs have more hoops to fly through
By Emily Kent, Robotics Business Review - Filed Jul 11, 2013

As the 50th Paris Air Show opened June 17th, the Teal Group published a market report putting some impressive numbers to a trend long anticipated by aerospace industry professionals—UAVs are going to be big.

According to the study, UAV sales will jump from a $5.2 billion annual industry to $11.6 billion, amounting to a total $89 billion over the next ten years. “The UAV market is evolving,” said Philip Finnegan, Teal Group’s director of corporate analysis and author of the study. “It is becoming an increasingly international market as it grows.”

The array of UAVs on display at Le Bourget Airfield during the week-long show certainly represents that, but the static nature of the exhibitions raises—well, technically grounds—a larger, global issue: airspace regulation.

Holding patterns

While Russian fighter jets, Eurocopters, and passenger liners took to the skies in the PAS’s highly-anticipated flight exhibitions, UAVs remained on blocks or hanging from display rigs in their manufacturers’ pavilions. It wasn’t due to a lack of technology to show off, or fears to put to rest, or attendee interest. It was the lack of a UAV-friendly airspace. 

Regulations and certifications aren’t surprising, unforeseen issues for the UAV industry—just slow-moving ones for a rapidly growing market that will double in a decade. The earliest the Federal Aviation Administration will open regulated UAV airspace is 2015. Europe’s geopolitical boundaries prove more problematic, not just for UAVs but even manned aircrafts. Despite the European Commission’s attempts to legislate a singular airspace proposal (called Single European Sky) starting in the late 1990s, no progress has been made, and the majority of air traffic is rerouted around pre-existing space governed by the respective countries.

There’s also a small matter of defining UAVs. According to Charles Leboeuf, project certification manager at the European Aviation Saftey Agency, “Drones don’t’ fall into any one category under current certification codes. How do you classify it? Should it be considered like a small airplane, or is it altogether something else?”

GI Drone

So where does an industry with $89 billion in potential revenue go when it can’t go up? Back to basic training.

The Paris Air Show famously welcomes a regular military presence demonstrating and observing the latest in advanced aeronautical weaponry, and the UAVs at this show were no exception. Best known for their success in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the UAVs drew the most interest from European militaries, many of which have a vested interest in drone acquisition, even in the wake of U.S. military budgeting and draw down.

While there’s not many places the UAVs can fly outside of a combat zone, nor many of the military-grade aircraft that will meet current European airspace regulations (like Germany’s failed “Euro Hawk” project), that’s not enough to stop buyers and development.

Just a day before the opening of the air show, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of plans to purchase 12 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones from the U.S. in an $894 million deal. While this deal put an end to a plea for European governments to collaborate to develop a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS), two of the companies making the proposition—French Dassault and German Cassidian—exhibited well at Le Bourget.

Among a slew of proposed deals, Cassidian’s TANAN 300 new generation compact vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Tactical UAS for maritime and land missions drew interest. Dassault’s experimental unmanned combat aircraft system, nEUROn, sat on display as a representative model of the project’s proposal to be delivered in late 2013.

Also garnering attention, though not strictly from militaries, was AgustaWestland’s Project Zero, with its flashy color scheme and title as the world’s first completely electric tiltrotor aircraft, with fan-in-wing technology.

While the end-game product will have a single-seat cockpit, the prototype is a UAV and has flown both tethered and un-tethered test flights. AgustaWestland isn’t looking to go into production any time soon, but rather use Project Zero as a “technology incubator,” as the amalgamation of different tech it requires lends itself well to experimental additions.

Though not intruding on AgustaWestland’s research, several aerospace companies have taken this concept of a UAV/manned craft hybrid and flown with it. Aurora Flight Services’ Centaur doubles as a surveillance drone or a plane, depending on which is required. Transition takes a two-man crew four hours to complete, but the option of being in the craft or controlling it from the ground is convenient and comparatively inexpensive. Other companies, like Piaggio Aero, built a UAV from a pre-existing manned craft model. Once an Avanti II passenger jet, the HammerHead was armed with surveillance equipment and remote flying system to become a UAV hoping to be approved by 2014.

Do we have a bearing?

What these hybrids and a growing trend to repurposing passenger aircrafts suggests is a waiting commercial market that, unfortunately, isn’t ready for them quite yet. Clearly military UAS development continues despite sequesters and pleas for U.N. supported moratoriums, but is that where the market for UAVs is going to double?

The potential for commercial development exists, especially for the U.S. which already has a command of the global industry. The Teal Group study projects the U.S. will generate 65% of the world research, development, test and evaluation (RTD&E) revenue and 51% of the procurement in the coming decade. And while a significant portion of this will probably come from military development, it can’t possibly account for all of these numbers. The U.S. UAV market is not without its challenges—but at least there’s a date for airspace regulation and a push to take the spying drone stigma away from UAVs and redirect their purpose as useful tools for municipal surveying, agricultural aid, tracking endangered animals, and even entertainment.

The Parrot AR.Drone, a little under 2 feet wide and nowhere near as formidable as some of its fellow UAVs on display, was the only one allowed to fly at Le Bourget.

A flock of them “danced” in time to music over attendees’ heads and demonstrated their new Director’s Mode, that allows the operator to create perfect camera pans and enhanced map out a space. Parrot hopes it’s “toy” will appeal to a wide market, not just of consumers, but of commercial professionals. It might not have been soaring, but while the rest of the UAVs at the show were grounded, the AR.Drone was hovering in the right direction.

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