So Many Men and Women for Unmanned

With federal officials working up numerous budget proposals for 2014 and 2015, and nobody knowing what will happen, while automatic, widespread budget rescissions known as sequestration are beginning to be felt this fiscal year, most any gathering of aerospace and defense denizens these days is a gloomy affair.


Not so at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (AUVSI) annual conference in Washington, D.C., which started today in earnest. In a totally unscientific and highly subjective estimate, this reporter is judging the annual AUVSI conference to be leading in vibrancy and attendance when compared to the likes of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, which also is held at the enormous Walter E. Washington Convention Center. That is no small feat since AUSA is, by nature, about the massive Army, where “quantity has a quality all of its own,” as it is said.

What makes unmanned so special? For starters, it could have something to do with the repeated, high-level guarantees from Pentagon officials that all-things unmanned will continue to be a priority in defense spending, no matter what happens with budget reductions under the 2011 Budget Control Act or any “grand bargain” over federal spending between Democrats and Republicans. Except for cyber and nuclear, there are few or no other sectors that can expect to see as much or more money from the Pentagon over the next decade. By contrast, the defense secretary recently publicly talked about possibly consolidating combatant commands, mothballing aircraft carriers and shrinking the active ranks of soldiers and Marines.

Next going for it is the fact that unmanned systems are about to enjoy the time-honored new-technology tradition of crossing over from almost strictly national security applications to commercial uses. Hence the race to introduce testing sites for UAVs in domestic airspace, as well as U.S. industry’s desire to remove export restrictions under the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Finally, in my hasty estimation, there is the fact that unmanned systems, as is often said, is still in their “barnstorming days.” Among other things, that means its technological parameters have yet to be set. One of the biggest goals, certainly for the future, is greater autonomy of unmanned systems: the ability to program a mission into an unmanned system and provide less human intervention, or even for unmanned systems to take care of themselves, such as air-to-air refueling.

I expect to see unmanned get-togethers like this one to be pretty populated for years to come. How ironic.

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