'It's a wild west business': Florida convention attracts major drone firms
An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial attack vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and missiles.
A Central Florida convention this week for unmanned vehicle systems, or drones, is showcasing one craft designed to defeat missiles, another upgradable for a human pilot and more that aren't much larger than a hand.
A wickedly fast drone being marketed Tuesday at the Orange County Convention Center can "literally outrun bullets," said Jeff Herro, vice president of Composite Engineering Inc. An elegantly swept-winged craft made by a European company "provides low radar detection."
Ungainly models at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International gathering, billed as the world's largest, resemble buckets with wire legs.
"It's a wild west business," said Ervin "Leno" Schoolfield, flight-operations director at Bosh Global Services. "When I first came here seven years ago, there were a lot of garage guys with posters talking about what they could build. This was about a quarter of the size it is now. The big guys have muscled in."
Making a large presence at the show, which isn't open to the public, are the likes of Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin and Textron Systems.
Also there is General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., maker of the MQ-9 Reaper, otherwise known as a missile-toting, hunter-killer flown by the U.S. military.
Not as well known is UAV Solutions Inc. of Maryland, selling a highly portable system that's useful for combat. It costs "50 K-ish," said William Davidson, the company's project manager.
"He's got an electro-optical camera, he's got an infrared camera and he's backpackable," Davidson said of the craft. "So an infantry man can carry it, and if he's under fire he can park it up there and see who is shooting at him."
It's a tumultuous time for drones, which have crashed, had a reported near-miss with an airliner in Florida and worry many as likely to lead to privacy invasion.
Government agencies and universities can operate drones in the United States. Even hobbyists can buzz them around at low altitude and within sight.
Still excluded from legal operation are commercial entities, such as farmers, map makers, pipeline inspectors, real-estate sellers and many others who would put the devices to work.
The Federal Aviation Administration is drafting regulations that would allow commercial operation of drones.
"We wait every year for the FAA to delay yet again for another year," said Schoolfield of Bosh Global Services.
Many drone makers have grown up in the business by operating in or selling to customers in countries less restrictive about drones in their airspace.
Among them, the Slovenian company C-Astral brought its Bramor, which has wings spanning 7½ feet, to the U.S. already refined with a transponder, launching catapult and a parachute-landing system.
"A person without a strong aeronautics background can operate it," said Nejc Trost of C-Astral.
Griffon Aerospace of Alabama has sold its large vehicles to the Army, Navy and Georgia Institute of Technology. The twin-engine plane weighs 140 pounds, can carry its own weight in payload and flies 160 mph.
"We don't weaponize it," said company engineer Greg Chando.
The Austrian-made Schiebel Camcopter, which looks like a small helicopter without a windscreen, can fly for more than six hours, looking for oil spills, pirates, smugglers and more. The first model was built in 2005.
The Composite Engineering Inc. drones that can outrun bullets have turbojet engines and can withstand sustained turns that would punish a pilot.
"Picture this," Herro said. "In a contested airspace, you have a circumstance where you fly in and you have to maneuver to defeat a missile. A man can only do so much before he blacks out. With this, I can actually defeat a missile by outmaneuvering it."