On Friday, April 27, 2012, Northrop Grumman Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Wes Bush addressed the Aero Club of Washington, D.C. Below are his remarks.

A Coming of Age for Unmanned Air Systems in Civil Airspace

This is an exciting time to be in aerospace, and to have a hand in the development of unmanned aerial systems in particular.

Ten years ago – perhaps even just five – if I addressed you on the topic of unmanned air systems in civil airspace, I would have been speculating:

  • Speculating about legal and regulatory hurdles that would have to be overcome;
  • Speculating about the state of the technology;
  • Speculating about the civil uses to which that technology might be put; the markets for those uses; and the business models to address those markets.

Well, today I’m not here to speculate. I’m here to talk about the here and now, and that’s what is so exciting. 

Because the age of unmanned air systems, safely integrated into civil airspace, has arrived:

  • Our government has mandated it by law;
  • The technology is well advanced to safely support it;
  • And there is a growing marketplace for its services. 

Those three critical stars are now aligned, and we can all be thankful that they are.

The most critical element, of course, is legislative. 

When it comes to the integration of unmanned air systems into civil airspace, nothing could happen on any useful scale absent a legal and regulatory framework established by our elected leaders.  Well, that has happened.

The FAA bill President Obama signed into law two months ago mandates that the Secretary of Transportation will work with other government agencies and industry to draft a plan this year for the integration of unmanned aircraft into civil airspace.

It further requires the FAA to establish a program to create six UAS test ranges by August of this year and have them operational by February of next year.

Finally, it mandates the safe integration of UASs into the national airspace no later than September 2015.

The bill passed on a bi-partisan basis with wide support.

This is truly a major accomplishment.  This integration activity is crucial to the development of unmanned air system capabilities for our nation. 

Current restrictions on the operations of UASs are very onerous, severely limiting the ability to use the systems in the national airspace.

Years from now, the passage of that bill might be interpreted as one the major advances in the progress of American aerospace. 

Organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association – AIA – and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International – AUVSI – did magnificent work in support of that effort.  We, who value American aerospace, owe these organizations our thanks.

One of the services they provided was to help those in Congress understand the safety and reliability of the technology, the second star in the array I mentioned earlier. 

As everyone in this audience knows, the mantra for anything new in our national airspace system, whether an aircraft, a procedure or regulation, is “safety first.”  

Our world today is extremely safety-conscious, and appropriately so, especially when it comes to our airspace. 

Any legislation that would permit unmanned air system operation in the nation’s airspace would require the complete confidence of our lawmakers and the FAA in the systems that would be regulated.  Let me just say that their confidence is well placed.

UAS safety continues to increase each year as we gain more and more experience with their operations.

The key element that makes flying unmanned air systems well suited for flying in our own civil airspace is “sense and avoid” technology. 

This is the technology, combined with the good work of our air traffic controllers, that keeps unmanned aircraft safely separated. 

I will tell you that this “sense & avoid” technology is well advanced. And we in industry await hearing the details of the capabilities and requirements the government wants in the systems. Once this is in place, existing technology is ready to be integrated to meet the requirements. And the testing program will be an important part of providing the confidence in its maturity.

And, of course, the unmanned air systems themselves are more than ready for transition into civil airspace. In fact, they have already proven their adaptability to civil uses, and today they truly are indispensible in the conduct of so many vital non-military missions.

So, accomplishing the enabling legislation and demonstrating the required technologies are major steps forward.

But we all know that there must also be a viable market for the unique services that unmanned air systems provide. This brings me to the third star that has fallen into alignment – the marketplace.

The United States has provided clear leadership in the development of unmanned air vehicles. Northrop Grumman is but one example.

We have been building unmanned air systems for many years – I’m proud to report that one of our flagship unmanned systems – the Global Hawk – reached its tenth anniversary last year.

And like most other unmanned systems that have been around for that length of time, the Global Hawk has experienced an evolution in capabilities, uses, and service that were unimagined at the time it was unveiled. 

The Global Hawk, first developed to support military missions,  has also proven indispensable to first responders in areas devastated by natural disasters – places such as Indonesia, Haiti and Japan – where Global Hawks were deployed to analyze roads, harbors, coastlines and bridges, showing relief parties the locations of survivors and the quickest routes to them.

Likewise, here at home, Global Hawks have been used to help battle forest fires in California.

During the fires near San Diego in 2007, which claimed fifteen lives, they sent fire information to ground crews in near real-time, allowing them to use their resources more effectively than ever before.

The San Diego fires help underscore the value of opening up civil airspace for unmanned air systems. Back in 2007, it took several days to get government permission to operate the Global Hawks in support of the fire fighters. 

The Fire Chief on the ground during those fires said, quote, “I am sure that if we had Global Hawk from the start we could have saved lives. Early on, there was a second fire in Ramona that was masked by the first fire. We didn’t warn people because we didn’t know it was there.  Those people had almost no warning,” unquote.

How many times have search and rescue efforts been called off due to weather, darkness, or crew fatigue? Unmanned air systems are unfazed by those kinds of limitations. They provide a new level of adaptability that has saved military and civilian lives alike and promises to save more in the future.

Of course, no business model can base itself solely on disasters. Something more routine is needed to justify the investment. Well, there is a market for that too.

Pipelines, utility lines, roads, rails, rivers – they all need to be regularly surveyed for maintenance purposes.  The most efficient way to do that is in one sweep.  Of course, some of them run coast to coast and border to border.

Unmanned air systems can fly those sweeps in all weather, day or night and at far less cost.

Unmanned air systems can monitor the moisture levels and health of farm land – again – all weather, day or night.

They can monitor forests for moisture content, as well as destructive insects and disease.

They can monitor coast lines for erosion assessments, and flood-prone areas for levy integrity.

They can assist with drug interdiction and harbor patrols. And many other uses that we have not even imagined. 

We can speak with confidence about these market areas because many of them already exist. Unmanned air systems will give the market additional options that it currently does not have.

This is indeed a golden age for these technologies, and the U.S. currently leads in this area. 

With the passage of the FAA reauthorization bill, the integration of unmanned air systems into our civil airspace is now mandated by law. 

In terms of American leadership in these technologies, this is reason for both optimism and concern. 

Other nations watch the U.S. and compete with us fiercely. When we break new ground, they follow suit. 

The civil applications for unmanned air system technologies are not lost on them. A valuable opportunity for America’s aerospace industry leadership could soon hang in the balance. Let me spend a moment on that.

Last year the Washington Post ran an article titled, “Global Rush is on to Match U.S. Drones.” It noted that more than 50 countries have purchased surveillance unmanned air systems. 

The article quotes American University law professor Kenneth Anderson, who studies these technologies, saying, quote, “This is the direction all aviation is going,” unquote. 

The article estimated that in the coming decade global spending on unmanned systems will reach $94 billion, and that several other nations are working hard to ramp up their unmanned R&D programs – many nations that have little or no export controls preventing them from selling their systems abroad. 

This is a clear advantage over American unmanned air system manufacturers.

Let me be clear:  Export restrictions are hurting this industry in America without making us any safer. 

And they could cause the U.S. to relinquish its lead in these technologies to other nations based on their ability to meet global demand. 

We have certainly seen this before with satellites. 

Years ago, we were so concerned about others gaining the “force multiplier” benefit of satellite communications that we essentially made it impossible for U.S. companies to sell communications satellites to our allies. 

We somehow thought that we had a corner on that technology, but we were badly mistaken. The very policies that were intended to keep this technology secure for us actually encouraged others, who could not buy it from us, to develop their own. 

America lost valuable export opportunities and we are no safer as a result.

I’m very pleased to see a new Pentagon-State Department report, which has found that satellite export controls should be relaxed by Congress so U.S. companies can better compete globally. 

Great news, but to a large extent, that horse left the barn many years ago. Before the controls were applied, we held 75 percent of the satellite market. That percentage dropped to as low as 25 percent, with significant revenue and job losses.

At a time when the budget request for national security space is already slated for a 22 percent reduction, Congress needs to act quickly on the report’s findings to ensure the U.S. space industrial base remains viable and stays second to none.

Today, the U.S. is struggling to sell unmanned aircraft to our allies while other nations prepare to jump into the marketplace with both feet. Currently, most of those foreign-built systems are for defense purposes. 

But then, so were ours, before a legislative solution opened new markets for civilian applications of those same aircraft. 

The good news is that our defense department is promoting what is clearly the best export reform policy – build higher walls around fewer things.  For this they deserve credit and encouragement. 

We hope this philosophy will be applied in the export treatment of commercial UAS systems, enabling growth in this potential market.  

Another positive by-product of export reform is that it also stands to promote new alliances and possibly new markets for American products. 

For example, Northrop Grumman was pleased to participate in two recent events in the United Arab Emirates. 

The first event, the inaugural Global Aerospace Summit, provided a forum for a broad spectrum of thought leaders to promote partnerships aimed at strengthening the overall global aerospace community.

The other event is the annual Unmanned Systems Innovation Challenge. This is an event we sponsor in partnership with that nation’s education ministry to promote science and technology through a student-based competition where teams build and operate their own unmanned aircraft.  

This kind of international engagement pays dividends in many ways – not just those directly related to business. 

It is difficult to imagine another category of technologies that promises greater versatility, flexibility, effectiveness, cost-efficiency – in a word, value – than unmanned systems. 

The three critical stars – legislative, technological, and market demand – are now aligned to enable these technologies to contribute to our nation’s economy as they have contributed to its security for so many years. 

Those of us who wish to see American aerospace continue to lead the world cannot rest, however. 

The legislative momentum achieved through the FAA reauthorization bill must continue with export control reform. 

The technological momentum that we have enjoyed for some time must be continued through the production of safe, useful, cost-effective systems. 

And the public, who will purchase the services and – ultimately – direct the government’s actions, must have confidence in this integration of unmanned air systems.

As you can see, we all have tasks to do. I encourage you to support such organizations as AIA and AUVSI in their efforts to educate and reassure the public about the potential of UAS integration into civil airspace.

I look forward to the coming years for unmanned systems and technologies. They are going to be exciting times.