That’s partially because I’m peppering him with questions about civilian drone applications, but our conversation was bound to wander in this direction. The DoD certainly isn’t going anywhere, but defense spending cuts hang over this place like the sword of Damocles. The term for next year’s mandated defense spending cuts, “sequestration,” can be overheard around the exhibit hall here at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual North American trade show like some kind of new and derogatory slang.
If you want to know what the future looks like, sit down and have a talk with Roy Minson. He’s the senior vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems at Aerovironment, the manufacturer of nearly 85 percent of the Department of Defense’s unmanned aircraft fleet--not the Reapers and Predators that so often make headlines, but small aerial systems that make up the vast majority of the DoD’s 7,000 strong unmanned aircraft fleet. That is to say, business with the defense sector is good at Aerovironment. But today Minson is talking almost exclusively about non-military applications for the company’s hardware--him, and just about everybody else at the nation’s largest robotic systems show.
But even as Congress prepares to twist the Pentagon’s money spigot down to a trickle, it tossed the unmanned systems industry a bone earlier this year by mandating that the Federal Aviation Administration integrate unmanned aircraft--first small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), but eventually larger ones as well--into the domestic airspace by 2015. First responders can already obtain clearance to operate small drones. And as a result, the tenor of the whole conversation here has shifted.