Monday, October 12, 2009

The Economist and Tom Barnett on UAV Revolution

Nice piece in the Economist on past, present and likely future of UAVs or "drones". Pace of innovation and energy-related technological advance reminds me of the 1980's PC era:
Small drones ... with electric motors are quiet enough for low-altitude spying. But batteries and fuel cells have only recently become light enough to open up a large market. A fuel cell developed by AMI Adaptive Materials, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, exemplifies the progress made. Three years ago AMI sold a 25-watt fuel cell weighing two kilograms. Today its fuel cell is 25% lighter and provides eight times as much power. This won AMI a $500,000 prize from the Department of Defence. Its fuel cells, costing about $12,000 each, now propel small drones.
And here are Barnett's take-aways:
  • No personnel lost and drones deliver great results at about 1/20th the cost of jets
  • Benefit is the loitering capacity ("persistent stare" means yo can find needles in haystacks because you can watch them being built) yielding real-time operational intell
  • In 2003, the big UAVs logged 35k hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year the number was 800,000 hours. That total doesn't even include all the new, super-small robotic ones that guys just launch by throwing them in the air; the U.S. military has something like 5,000 such units. That's a revolution, my friends
And his prediction: "the big UAVs are getting up in the tens of millions of dollars per unit, but the smaller ones stay in the tens of thousands of dollars. Guess which ones will win out over time?"
For me, UAVs and their land-based and under-sea autonomous and semi-autonomous cousins have got to be one of the most exciting product families to work on in a long time. And the implications of their arrival and eventual ubiquity are, for DOD energy demand planners, presently unfathomable. Eyes wide open on this space.

Photo: Wikimedia

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