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Large drones have a spot in the sky, too

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Small, unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes -- i.e., Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) delivery, agricultural surveying and the like -- have gotten lots of attention, both for the benefits they bring, and for their help in demilitarizing the word "drone" to a wary public.

But several key brains behind the technology say this type of drone, while it has its place, isn’t the only flying robot with a future.

“People think of little tiny drones as the future, and when people ask me what is the future of flying vehicles, I actually think it’s this,” said Charles Bergan, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), pointing to a large Lockheed Martin Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System vehicle.

“So it’s an unmanned quadrotor that flies in, and then you can put cargo inside, pick up different kinds of cargo containers and lift them off, all autonomously,” Bergan said. “And this is really the future for me -- this thing is carrying heavy weights, big loads, long distances. And it’s exciting because now you can be in the middle of nowhere and send relief aid. So the future is really bright, not just for small unmanned vehicles, but very, very large ones.”

Unsurprisingly and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Bergan said what’s still needed for this type of large vehicle, as well as smaller ones for commercial use, to really become autonomous is a smartphone chip for a brain.

He said Qualcomm’s Zeroth technology, which aims to allow robots to think and learn as humans do, will be key in solving the existing problems with drones, namely sense-and-avoid technology, and the ability to learn by doing, not by being programmed.

Linden P. Blue, CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., mentioned his company’s Predator and Predator B drones, which are large machines with 40- or 60-foot wingspans, and are used for military operations 90 percent of the time.

“I don’t think there’s a future for any ground force anywhere without this kind of persistent overhead coverage,” Blue said at a recent MIT Enterprise Forum.

Other uses for General Atomics’ remotely piloted aircraft -- or RAPs, as they are called -- include NASA using them to survey for weather purposes, wildfire monitoring and border patrol.

From Blue’s perspective, the two main challenges that lie ahead on the technology side are integrating the RAPs into civilian airspace, which can’t happen until the sense-and-avoid technology is functional, and addressing the threat of surface-to-air transmissions.

For Jill Meyers, senior project manager at 3D Robotics, a supplier of open-source software for drones as well as several models of small commercial UAVs , said the exciting part about the future of the commercial side is the variety of uses that haven’t even been discovered yet.

“The excitement of watching that grow … creating these new uses is what we’re really looking forward to,” she said.

Aside from agriculture, which Meyers said has been the hot spot for 3D Robotics products so far, they’ve filled orders for search and rescue units, nature conservancies doing reforestation surveying, extreme athletes wanting footage of their feats and construction companies inspecting their work.

Blue said one of the challenges he faces at a company that does frequent work with the government and Department of Defense is the difference in speed between the commercial side and government side of drone technology.

“One of big challenges we have is to try to improve the capabilities we have to be able to incorporate innovation and advances from the commercial side,” Blue said. “And we’ve got to figure out a way to do that within the procurement system -- right now it’s not sustainable."

In terms of an endgame, Bergan said he doesn’t think there will be a time when drones are capable of completing an entire mission sans humans. He predicts a more specialized type of robot capable of doing one task well as opposed to a single robot developing common sense and being able to conquer a variety of tasks.

“Experts talk about at what point can they actually do a full mission without a human in the loop,” Bergan said. “I think that’s probably pretty far away because generalized common sense is hard. So if I have an aircraft mission over a long range, it would be very difficult to say you’d never need a pilot. I think you’ll always have some number of pilots -- it may be less than the number aircraft -- but you still need some.”

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General Atomics

Company Website

P.O. 85608
San Diego, CA 92186

General Atomics Executive(s):

Neal Blue

  • Chairman, Chief Executive Officer

Linden Blue

  • Vice Chairman

Frank Pace

  • President, Aircraft Systems Group

Linden Blue

  • President, Reconnaissance Systems Group

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