Michael Bronner

“Everybody wants a drone!” 

Sascha Lange, the German dronemaker EMT Penzberg’s business development mensch, is standing beneath one of his best-sellers, the LUNA – an 88-pound, nearly 8-foot-long, catapult-launched unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has seen service for the Bundeswehr in the Balkans and Afghanistan. 

“We are so busy we’ve run out of everything; this business card I’m giving you – it’s my very last one,” says Lange during a late-afternoon lull at EMT’s booth at Eurosatory 2012, the massive annual Paris arms bazaar.  

“The media is ‘Drones! Drones! Drones!’ and it’s not just American ones: On CNN, you see, okay, now Malaysia has a drone, and other countries say, ‘Aha! We want one!’ We’ve tripled our size in the last seven years. Asia, Africa, Latin America – it’s a snowball effect!”

Rambling around Eurosatory’s vast multi-hall display of death machines during the weeklong show (June 11-15), it certainly seems so. Drone displays, some several dozen, were no less prominent than the guns, missiles and tanks that make up the more traditional fare. Make no mistake - the drones are coming, and the industry is pushing hard on the tenuous barriers of civilian airspace. 

There are Spanish drones; Swedish drones; a high-profile Emirati exhibit. There are micro and mini drones; fixed-wing and multi-rotor; even “hexa-rotor.” Some UAVs can hover for hours. Smart-drones can find their way “home on lost link” (with a “GPS cage…to avoid pilot mistakes”). There are drones named after pelicans; mini-helicopter models that can “clutch” and “grab” (delivering “a safety-raft, or ammunition…” says the Swedish salesman)… 

They are “all-weather, easy to operate.” They can take off from short or long runways; ships; slings. Some boast “silent flight.” They land like planes; they land by parachute…

©Michael BronnerThere are rotor-wing drones with loudspeakers; others with sensors that can detect a human heartbeat. They come tricked out with “hyper/multi-spectral cameras” and “synthetic aperture radar.” Some carry high-definition live-streaming spy cameras with Belgian software pushing technical bandwidth boundaries…

One company flew its multi-rotor UAVs around a netted cage ringed by men in suits taking movies on smartphones. 

And best of all: “No aircraft piloting skills needed.”

“There are more players, more models, than I’ve seen at the show before,” says Olof Strömkvist, whose VTOL (vertical take-off and landing drone) CybAero comes with a typically Swedish tagline: “Increasing Human Safety.” (Whereas most UAV companies show battlefield demo videos with high-definition images of human and armored targets, CybAero is seen buzzing around the Norwegian Arctic, where a hypothermic sailor would make a more likely mark.) 

©Michael Bronner“It’s fascinating, because you can see the market trying to cover all possible niches,” he says.

A 2012 market study from the Teal Group, a Fairfax, VA-based aerospace and defense market analyst, called the growth of the drone market “the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry this decade.” The report covered some 40 US, European, South African and Israeli companies.

Teal estimates that drone spending will almost double from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling over $89 billion in the next ten years. 

“It’s going to be an unmanned era going forward,” said an Indian Defense Research & Development Organization senior scientist, whose display included not only a UAV, but a robotic spider and six-foot snake, the robo-serpent being one of the most popular diversions at the show.  

“The reaction has been wonderful,” says the scientist, who had the idea for the snake as a rescue tool while watching news reports of the devastating 2001 earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat. “If you build something inspired by nature, people are fascinated.”

Of course, it is not nature but the increasing prominence of drones and robots in the American- and NATO-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the high-tempo US drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen that have most inspired the exhibitors in Paris.

©Michael BronnerPerhaps the “sexiest” display at the show (manned by two lithe women in cocktail dresses – one blond, one less blond) featured a bat-winged stealth prototype called the Neuron from the French aeronautics company Dassault. 

“Neuron costs 400 million Euros and involves six European companies,” says Dassault’s Yves Robins. “We’ve been working on this drone for six years and will work on it for two years more. There will only be one and it will never be produced. It’s not the aim. It’s a technology demonstrator that will have myriad combat applications. Our presence here is mainly aimed at French government officials.”

Even the earthquate-inspired Indian robo-snake has a military application: “It can slip into buildings and pipes,” says its developer. “We are working for it to be able to climb a tree and perch as a surveillance platform.”

Almost all of the actual business in UAVs is on the military side in part because national governments, confronted with the massive privacy and safety implications of dronemakers aggressive pushing to expand into civilian applications, are now weighing various legislative restrictions. 

Under new (month-old) regulations in France, for example, it is forbidden to fly UAVs over any civilian population, village or group of people, but an operator can apply for a license to fly UAVs of certain weights under certain highly restrictive conditions.  

And this month in the United States, a bill "to protect individual privacy against unwarranted governmental intrusion through the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles" was introduced in the House of Representatives (the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012; HR 5925), with a companion bill in the Senate (S.3287). 

©Michael BronnerPassage of either bill into law does not mean there won’t be drones overflying the US homeland, however. In an April 2012 report to Congress, the Pentagon listed 110 sites as potential drone bases in 39 states. The Defense Department and military currently have 88 certificates of authorization to fly drones outside restricted military airspace in the US, according to the report:

The Department of Defense (DoD) continues to increase its investment in unmanned aircraft systems to meet battlefield commanders' demand for their unique capabilities. The emphasis on long-endurance, unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (lSR) assets - many with strike capabilities – is a direct reflection of recent operational experience and further Combatant Commander demands. This increase in demand has resulted in a large number ofUAS capable of a wide range of missions. This large number of fielded UAS has also driven a strong demand for access within the National Airspace System (NAS). This need for airspace access to test new systems, train operators, and conduct continental United States (CONVS)-based missions has quickly exceeded the current airspace available for military operations. The situation will only be exacerbated as units return from overseas contingencies…  -Executive Summary, DoD Report to Congress 

Flights of military drones over civilian airspace are just the beginning, according to several manufacturers at the Paris show. 

©Michael Bronner“Civilian companies are pushing hard to have the doors opened to use,” says Lionel Bourdin, head of customer support at Survey Copter, a French drone and robot company. “The market will be huge – doubling or tripling” once the legislative hurdles are cleared, he predicts.  

CybAero’s Strömkvist agrees. “For a fact, right now the interest is far stronger for military, but civilian is coming,” he says, noting that drones were used successfully during the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan (the US-made “micro air vehicle” T-Hawk, previously deployed to search for roadside bombs in Iraq, reportedly entered the Fukushima danger zone and took video of the destruction). 

“Of course, many applications on the civilian side awaken integrity questions,” adds Strömkvist.

However real the obliteration of personal privacy posed by Big Brother’s unmanned cousins languidly circling civilian airspace – and given the interest shown by law enforcement and border patrol, among others, these are near-future legislative fights – ultimately it’s real obliteration that gets bragging rights at the arms show. 

©Michael Bronner“Look around,” says EMT’s Lange, puffing beneath his battle-tested crafts. “Everyone wants a drone, but how many companies have platforms that are operational?”  

Dassault’s Robins agrees. “Just because you see a mock-up, or even an operational drone, it does not mean anyone has ordered this drone. For every one drone that is operational with an armed force, you will see 20 different projects that will probably never go into serious production.”   

“The Israelis and Americans are getting all the orders,” pouts a Spanish drone dealer, leading to a more essential jealousy:  “Of course, the US uses them in ways other countries cannot.” 

(Earlier that day, US strikes on a home in southern Yemen killed some 27 people – part of the drone-centric, CIA-led covert war there that has killed between 300 and 400 people in 2012 to date.)

Michael Bronner is an editor of Warscapes.