Unmanned Systems Opportunities
Technological advancements, both within the DoD and in the commercial domain, have provided an exciting landscape for unmanned system developers. Disruptive technologies such as multicore processing and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) provide robot builders with access to computer processing that is smaller, faster, and cheaper.
Roboticists can also choose from the expanding variety of COTS sensors – from inexpensive infrared microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors to highly complex laser rangefinders, or LIDARs, that produce intricate 3D models of a surrounding environment.
The military robots and unmanned vehicles market was estimated at $831M USD in 2009 and is anticipated to reach $9.7B USD by 2016. Large organizations, top-tier prime contractors, and small-to-medium sized technology firms will all vie for DoD contracts.
Competition, productivity and economic growth across all levels of capitalization are sure to ensue, thanks in part to Federal initiatives aimed at fostering participation by socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses.
For instance, a Congressional mandate requires all Federal agencies with an annual extramural R&D budget exceeding $100M to participate in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. As such, eleven federal departments participate in the SBIR program, including the DoD.
The SBIR program budget is computed as 2.5 percent of the Agency’s extramural R&D budget; this means at least $200M will be awarded specifically to small to medium businesses for unmanned systems development contracts in 2010. Similar initiatives, like the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, will add to this market potential.
A Strategic Advantage
Regardless of corporation size, proof of concepts and prototype demonstrations will be a crucial part to acquire new business in the unmanned systems market. For businesses looking for a strategic advantage, this means using flexible, productive design tools when possible.
Robotics design tools (Figure 3, below), can provide engineers with rapid and sophisticated prototyping functionality such as support for multicore, real-time embedded, and FPGA targets; seamless integration with hundreds of commercial sensor, actuator, and instrument drivers; and support for hybrid programming solutions, such as integrating graphical software with ANSI C based languages or importing m-scripts to run on real-time OSs.
|Figure 3. Robotics development platforms, like LabVIEW Robotics, can reduce development time and prototyping costs by providing pre-built drivers for hundreds of sensors, as well as integrated support for military communications standards, such as JAUS.|
With its integrated roadmap, the DoD has taken the initial steps to fully realize the impact of unmanned system development will have on modern-day national defense, both on and off the battlefield. Robots will not only save lives, they will alleviate troops of cumbersome yet necessary tasks. In the coming years, experimentation will be key.
Robot developers who can quickly and effectively prototype the next-generation of unmanned systems will be the first to see their robots deployed on the field. Combining COTS technologies with open, intuitive robot design platforms will provide unmanned systems developers with an ample running start.
Emilie Kopp is a Robotics Business Developer for National Instruments in Austin, Texas. She holds a master’s of science in mechanical engineering from Rice University and routinely blogs about robotics at labviewrobotics.wordpress.com..