Groups of countries are increasingly co-operating to develop their industrial and technological bases for the next generation of UAVs – will their efforts bear fruit?

Europe will get its first roadmap for development of a civil unmanned air vehicle industry in May, when the European Commission-sponsored UAVNET releases its plan for future development priorities. The roadmap will set out science and technology priorities, and recommend development activities and demonstration programmes necessary to ensure European industry is competitive on the world stage as the UAV market continues to evolve.

While focused on the European Union states, the UAVNET roadmap represents the attempt to set up a long-term collaborative approach to development of the unmanned systems industry among a large group of nations. A separate policy proposal document supporting the roadmap will recommend that UAV capability development be made a focus for the European Commission's Seventh Framework research funding programme, due to be implemented from 2007.


The UAVNET initiative comes at a time of significant interest among many nations in how to position their own domestic industrial base to participate in the anticipated development of a global civil UAV marketplace, as well as to meet the demands of rapidly evolving military requirements. Among the countries already committed to some form of national strategic focus on civil UAVs are Australia and South Korea (see P36). There is also a push within UK industry for a comprehensive approach that would include direct connections to the planned European-wide roadmap.

The USA has long pioneered the use of strategic planning in shaping its domestic unmanned systems industry base. The US Department of Defense UAV roadmap is widely considered a key reference point for many of the existing as well as evolving national approaches to industry development. But because of the USA's leadership position, UAVNET project co-ordinator Mark Okrent says, the roadmap being developed is in part a political response intended to help the European industrial base maintain technological parity.

"The first page [of the roadmap] is not intended to scare anyone, but it says we do not have the next stage for UAVs within Europe," says Okrent. "This will be the picture in the next few years – 25 European nations with ‘made in the USA' UAVs because that is where the UAVs are being developed, that is where the money is being invested.

Made in EU

"But if we do the work that we are talking about, if the UAV activities we define in the roadmap are completed we will have ‘made in EU' UAVs," he says. "The US is investing colossal amounts of money, billions of dollars, and Europe has to stand up and say this is what we have to do and we are going to involve all of Europe in it."

Okrent says the roadmap is intended to create "an opportunity for a new European aeronautics industry. This is building the future of European aeronautics research and development. This is the opportunity to allow the European aeronautics industry to lead the world in UAV activities. This is the opportunity to bring 25 nations into the aeronautical sphere."

Citing the success of Airbus, which involves four European nations, Okrent says: "We are saying there is another project here that can provide all the 25 nations with aeronautical benefits – an opportunity for each of the EU member states, including the smaller ones, to be involved in research and development and new production techniques. Civil UAVs can be a way to do that."

Transitioning the plan from vision to formal EU policy will be a challenge, Okrent achnowledges: "We know that in the US, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and the FAA are all supporting the UAV community. That is one of the issues that we must focus on in this roadmap: to get the organisations, the governments in Europe, to also support UAVs."

Tim Willbond, until last month chairman of the UK's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (UAVS) association, now heads its new UAV certification business venture. UAVS "fully applauds the UAVNET initiative. It does reflect the need in Europe and we will do everything we can to support it," he says. "As awareness of the dimensions and dynamics of the market is growing, we are seeing lots of interest from various other agencies, various industrial groupings, now beginning to emerge."

The European roadmap will not obviate the need for a UK national strategy, Willbond says. But the existence of an overarching European plan will provide a means of "informing that process, with us plugging in more detail and filling some of the gaps that there may be. Complimentary has got to be the way forward." While there may be differences of view and of emphasis, "in the end," he says, "they have really got to come together in a total European context".

Rapid growth

Planning for a European roadmap is an extension of the national strategy concept, which is in turn a result of the rapid growth of the market and the opening up of new niches, says Dewar Donnithorne-Tait, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). "New, unheard of requirements are appearing all the time. Because the market is growing so quickly there is a chance that you could start up [an industry] if you were an early adopter for a new requirement."

There is a perception among many national planners that UAVS are "bite-sized systems" that can open the door to new technologies, says Donnithorne-Tait. "Most nations think they can get some national advantage – South Korea is a good example – by getting on and being a leader in this bite-sized technology area."

The approach to developing a UAV strategy often is guided by how a nation already pursues development of its information technology industry. This has resulted in a tendency to pursue the use of industry clustering concepts and centres of excellence around which groups of companies can cooperate, increase market share, and drive up employment.

Funded by the European Union, the Parc Aberporth UAV centre of excellence being developed by the Welsh Development Agency "is an example of that principle in action", Donnithorne-Tait says. "UAVs generally have much more in common with an information technology strategy because of the very large information component and because it is not, generally, a heavy industry."


National aspirations for self-sufficiency in defence-related technologies are also a factor, Donnithorne-Tait says. "This is not just limited to unmanned systems; this is the same across the board. They perceive that if they do their own thing they will end up with a better fit for the requirement that any new system to fit in with what have already. In other words it doesn't mean compromises with the rest of their overall acquisition programme."

But not all national plans adopt the broad-based approach seen with the DoD UAV roadmap and UAVNET initiative. Donnithorne-Tait says the balance in priorities in national plans vacillate between industry and military needs, with the latter often predominating because it is where funding resources are to be found. But, where defence requirements predominate, the strategy is most likely to concentrate on a specific set of capabilities that can act against the more economically focused national objectives.

"Equally some companies think there is a world market out there, and they want to sell lots of systems, in which case they will be double-guessing other people's required outputs and trying to make platforms, sensors, datalinks and communications that will meet other people standards," he says.

There is a danger in purely national approaches. "Because UAVs are a relatively new area, pioneers often view a limited portfolio and get quite protective about it. This pioneering, protective approach in turn leads to stovepipe approaches both within the nation and internationally," Donnithorne-Tait says.

Similar cautions were expressed in November by the Western European Union (WEU) Assembly in its first ever report on European unmanned combat air vehicle and UAV programmes. "Already there is a proliferation of industrial UAV and UCAV programmes both at a national level and in co-operation", the report warned. "While the aims they share are laudable, their effect is to keep technological exchanges within a closed circuit (either at national level or restricted to the participants in a programme), which in turn leads to the development of different, non-interoperable and non-interchangeable standards."

The WEU report warned the Dassault-led Neuron UCAV demonstrator programme is destined to remain limited in its outcomes "as long as neither Germany nor the United Kingdom are participants". This is despite the Neuron programme attempting to "define a standard that is also applicable to non-participants".

The report also argued that while Neuron and the EADS-led EuroMALE endurance UAV programmes represented necessary steps to "organise a consistent and harmonised approach to requirements in this field", both approaches lacked any higher level of European co-ordination.

What drives national strategy towards international cooperation in the longer term, Donnithorne-Tait says, is when UAVs are placed into the overall context of how the technology will be applied and the level of autonomous capability being pursued. "If you are developing something it shouldn't be developed or procured in isolation," he says.

"The strategy has to be properly put in context and in the unmanned systems area there is a vast issue to do with data standards and communication protocols and bandwidth allocation, and that has to be reconciled nationally and then internationally with respect to air traffic control, certification regulations, frequency compatibilities and, in the defence context, with all the standards and requirements of network-centric operations."

As a result, he says, "as UAVs and unmanned systems generally become more and more complex, they are going to become just like current military tank and aircraft and ship projects, where international co-operation becomes essential."

In that context, Donnithorne-Tait says, a development such as the UAVNET roadmap becomes the next obvious step, but is not the only option. "There are already some de facto co-operative international programmes happening because there is an outstanding product on the ground and we are seeing that now with the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. Not only does America have it, but Germany is looking at a fleet as is Australia. You end up with a club – just like Boeing aircraft or McDonnell Douglas aircraft, you have clubs of operators around an existing product where there is co-operation and it becomes the de facto standard internationally."

Difficult area

But the most difficult area for co-operation regardless of the strategic approach, Donnithorne-Tait says, remains the government-to-government level. "Project Group 35 inside NATO has for many years been looking at UAV interoperability. The key point is the harmonisation of requirements," he says. "In many of the simpler, less exotic tasks, there are excellent grounds for being able to harmonise requirements. The prospects for international co-operation for at least platform development are relatively easy. When we get down to the sensor level we quickly get into very high areas of classification, and when you get down into things like algorithms for signature recognition and so on the possibilities are reduced."


Source: Flight International