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The defense industry's great hope: Unmanned systems

This is not a scientific metric, but this week's trade show of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is a lot bigger than it used to be. Its spiral-bound, advertising-packed program is an inch thick, and has full color throughout. It has taken over much of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the heart of the nation's capital, and, although it doesn't rival the other big stars in the trade show constellation -- AUSA, AFA or the Navy League -- it reflects flush times in the unmanned world.

At AUVSI, you can almost forget the black fiscal clouds over Washington. Here, vendors are pitching ever-newer, ever more advanced unmanned systems that roll, swim and fly, whether or not the military services necessarily have a program lined up for them. But defense companies big and small are taking the risk of spending their own money to develop and build new unmanned systems because they're confident the Pentagon will continue to buy them no matter what happens to its budget. An aircraft that doesn't need a pilot will almost certainly be cheaper than a manned one over its lifetime. Commanders can't get enough real-time surveillance, or combat air support orbits, or bomb disposal robots. So when the boldfaced names of the defense world have fewer opportunities with traditional sales, the unmanned game looks better than ever.

Northrop Grumman just ditched its often controversial, capital-intensive shipbuilding division and is pushing its unmanned portfolio hard: Global Hawk, Fire Scout, the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, etc. Boeing officials boasted about their newly consolidated unmanned business headquarters in Mesa, Ariz., where they're beginning to experiment with all manner of new fixed- and rotary-wing unmanned aircraft. A top Boeing UAS official, Rick Lemaster, described the prospect for a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft (also built by Boeing) to carry "Mag-Eagle" UAVs in canisters on its wings, which the Poseidon's crew could deploy to hunt submarines with their special magnetic sensors.

Does the Navy want to buy such a thing? Is it willing to task a surface ship somewhere to recover a P-8's swarm of mini-drones, or just let them ditch -- i.e. throw them away -- after each mission? No solid answers yet. Boeing also has a full-scale model of its A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter rigged up with gunship-style wings stacked with Hellfire-style missiles. It has flown once in this configuration, but it's a ways away from being able to see and shoot the way you'd want it to in combat. Does the Army even want a prospective unmanned helicopter to carry this kind of firepower? Unclear.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, had the hottest ticket on the show floor on Wednesday with its Samurai "micro-air vehicle," a simple UAV small enough to fit in your lunchbox. It drew big crowds when it flew in the show's netted UAV aviary. The Samurai is a single flying wing with a tiny propeller that spins around a hub -- it's "inspired by a maple seed," the company says -- and as it twirls, it can beam back video from its stabilized camera. No one has signed up to buy such a thing, and the company admits it's a technology demonstrator, but it shows that Lockheed believes the time, energy and cash it's investing here will yield a big payoff at some point down the road.

So will it? It's true that Iraq and Afghanistan have been the coming-of-age wars for unmanned systems, and their momentum still hasn't run out -- Northrop, Boeing and other companies are working on a new generation of high altitude UAVs that can loiter for weeks, to help with the ISR demand in Afghanistan. Company officials are betting that as American troops come home, there'll be even more of a need for unmanned platforms in the war zone, so that could be an area of steady spending or even growth as the rest of the war budgets dissolve.

Wes Bush, Northrop's CEO, was unequivocal in his keynote address on Wednesday morning: Despite the uncertainty about the overall defense budget, "I'm really excited about the coming years," he said.

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