After a decade of low-intensity warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unmanned air vehicle has emerged as a heavyweight in modern combat. It may not seem as revolutionary as the bow and arrow of ancient times or the armed biplanes of the First World War, but it is the root of a whole new branch in aviation.
In Afghanistan, operation of UAVs has been relatively easy, given relaxed flight rules and little in the way of anti-aircraft threat. But without the urgency brought by combat to procure and modify UAVs by the dozen, what does relative peacetime mean for the sector? Until recently, it has been a tumultuous, dynamic business.
The new technologies - and perhaps, more importantly, the new government market - gave rise to a plethora of new companies marketing UAVs. Several grew big - General Atomics, AAI, Insitu - but the latter two were then purchased by true government-serving behemoths - Insitu is now a division of Boeing and AAI, having acquired Aerosonde, was bought by Textron.
The industry appears to have stabilised, and the market is teeming with UAVs. "The customer", as the US government is known in defence circles, has plenty of UAVs already and is running out of cash to buy new ones. If politicians are to be believed, any urgency to purchase UAVs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance will be over by 2014 - and budgets are tight.
For even large-scale contracts, such as the US Navy's bid to field an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system (UCLASS), we should expect to see modifications to existing aircraft rather than new designs - a cheaper option.
Certainly, more systems such as UCLASS will be required. While the slow, un-stealthy General Atomics Predator/Reaper-class aircraft works well in an environment such as Afghanistan, where air defences are not a consideration, they are less relevant when facing serious threats.
The US Navy is taking the slow road and has yet to release a formal set of requirements. UCLASS will operate in a radically new environment, on a tight aircraft carrier flightdeck in close proximity to manned aircraft and ground crew. Optimistically, the navy hopes to have an aircraft operational by 2020.
As US military might slowly pivots towards Asia, its aircraft fleet must adapt. A Predator or Northrop Grumman Global Hawk is unsuitable against a bristling network of surface-to-air missiles and air-to-air fighters. UAVs have yet to even gain acceptance within the airspace of operating nations and to fly a UAV in civilian airspace requires an extraordinary effort from the operator and regulatory agency.
Both sides know such difficulties are largely inconsequential - an aircraft is not necessarily less safe for being unmanned - but there are valid concerns over maintaining separation and the security of datalinks, to say nothing of possible privacy implications which make the general public wary.
During the US military's use of UAVs in integrated airspace, there have been several infamous incidents of lost-link and mid-air collision, including a lost-link with a rotary-wing Northrop Grumman MQ-8, which was for a time on direct course for Washington, DC airspace. Pictures of an AAI RQ-7 collision with a Lockheed Martin C-130 have done the rounds, as has what appears to be a German army EMT Penzberg Luna UAV near-miss with an Ariana Afghan Airlines Airbus A300.
With a stable industry, less urgency, tighter budgets, and some trepidation, UAVs have become a part of the world of warfare and the civil world can expect to reap the benefits - sooner or later - as they are accepted into civil airspace.