Local defense contractors Northrop Grumman, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, SAIC, Cubic and General Dynamics were among the more than 300 companies showcasing their products at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual conference in San Diego Tuesday.
The event, which brings together all of the unmanned disciplines in the $2.9 billion industry -- air, ground and maritime -- continues Wednesday and Thursday at the San Diego Convention Center.
Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) was on hand to give an update of its Global Hawk aircraft.
The Global Hawk is a high altitude, long endurance system that can capture images and collect data in real time.
The aircraft was used to help firefighters battle the wildfires that blazed across Southern California last fall.
It can fly as high as 60,000 feet in the air, safely away from any commercial air traffic and protected from any hazardous weather. It also can achieve sensor visibility of 300 nautical miles and reach groundspeeds of more than 300 knots.
"We often refer to the Global Hawk as a low altitude, highly mobile satellite," said Edward Walby, director of business development for the Global Hawk system.
The idea of using the Global Hawk to support recovery efforts during a natural disaster occurred during Hurricane Katrina.
But because the aircraft's capabilities were relatively new and therefore not understood, officials didn't use it for Katrina.
When the wildfires hit San Diego and Los Angeles counties last October, however, officials at Beale Air Force Base -- just north of Sacramento and home to the Global Hawk -- prepared for action.
But it still took four days to get approval for the Global Hawk to fly over Southern California.
"It's not that the process is difficult, it's that people aren't educated on what the capabilities offer, so people don't know what to ask for," Walby said.
The unmanned aircraft flew over the region at night to pinpoint hotspots, allowing firefighters to plan their activities the next day.
Fire officials wanted the previous night's information by 5 a.m., so they could sort through the pictures and relay the information to their crews.
The firefighters only asked for infrared images, although the Global Hawk can provide other types of data.
"They were astonished as to how much data could be collected," Walby said. "We learned a lot from this operation."
One lesson was communication. Walby said the Global Hawk has a lot of capabilities that weren't used -- like providing images in real time -- but that wasn't communicated to the firefighters.
Other parts of the system need refining too, according to Walby. The request and approval process needs to be streamlined.
Northrop Grumman is looking at all of the Global Hawk's capabilities, including using it as a communication relay and allowing it to provide direct imagery distribution to cell phones and PDAs.
The Global Hawk can be used for border patrol, coastal patrol and disaster relief.
The aircraft can track hurricanes and tropical depressions for their entire duration, Walby said.
It also can help identify crowded evacuation routes, enabling officials to redirect traffic. And Global Hawk can help locate people who are stranded by using infrared imagery and assess the damage a hurricane leaves.
"You would save lives if you had a system such as Global Hawk over every type of hurricane operation," Walby said.
The aircraft can carry a payload of 3,000 pounds and fly for more than 35 hours without refueling.
Without a payload, it can fly for as many as 42 hours straight. At this point, it can't be refueled in the air.
It can be flown autonomously without any human interaction, but Northrop Grumman officials like to have a pilot oversee the operations. The pilot uses a keyboard and mouse to change where the sensor looks.
"The pilot is always there to decide what to do next because things on the ground (can) change dramatically," Walby said.
Northrop Grumman already has an agreement with NASA to use the planes for environmental research and weather monitoring.
And the Air Force has put in an order for 54 Global Hawks to be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Northrop Grumman also had international interest in the aircraft and it's building a Euro Hawk for Germany.
"They are other counties with equal concerns about homeland security that look at Global Hawk at the ideal solution," Walby said.