Jun 3, 2013
05:05 PMConnecticut Today
Connecticut Poised To Be at the Center of the Aerial Drone Industry
In March, Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky launched a dramatic, 13-hour filibuster to block the appointment of John Brennan as director of the CIA. In part, Paul was protesting the potential use of military drones against U.S. citizens on American soil.
In the future, if Paul wants to protest against drones, he might want to come to Connecticut. According to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, “unmanned aircraft”—also known as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—will be allowed in domestic airspace as of 2015, and a Shelton company is already designing them.
Shortly after Paul’s filibuster, a report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) ranked Connecticut sixth among states that will benefit when use of drones is legal. And last summer, officials from the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity Agency in Washington, D.C., awarded a $4.8 million contract to the Shelton-based D-STAR Engineering Corp. to develop a stealth drone-propulsion system.
Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources at the AUVSI, says his organization based its report on the vitality of the state’s well-established aerospace industry—Lockheed Martin Corp., Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky and other aerospace companies with a strong presence here. “We believe Connecticut’s existing aerospace jobs are a good factor for potential future success—there’s a reason aerospace is already in the state,” Mailey says, adding that the fact companies like D-STAR are already working on unmanned vehicles for the Department of Defense bodes well for Connecticut’s long-term positioning in the drone industry. “That means there’s entrepreneurship within the state.”
The AUVSI report estimates a total economic impact for Connecticut from 2015 to 2017 of $538 million, with $4.32 million going to the state in taxes. In addition, the state would gain 1,422 jobs in drone manufacturing.
In the not-too-distant future, some unmanned-vehicle enthusiasts predict a world straight out of the old TV cartoon “The Jetsons,” with unmanned cars and planes routinely transporting passengers. In the meantime, unmanned vehicles are expected to be used extensively by commercial industry and for potentially dangerous tasks such as monitoring crime scenes or natural disasters.
“People hear the word ‘drone’ and they think they’re these negative killing machines,” Mailey says, acknowledging the well-publicized military applications. “In reality, many of these unmanned vehicles are going to be doing cost-, time- and labor-saving activities in the commercial markets, such as agriculture. Japan has been using unmanned systems for crop spraying for decades.”
Tom Maloney, director of technology research and applications initiative at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, an East Hartford-based nonprofit that promotes innovations in manufacturing, says: “In Connecticut, we can probably make a case that we can add value to every piece of the UAV, from design to manufacturing. But I think our biggest role in the industry in the future will be innovation—developing the next generation and the latest and greatest components.”
S. Paul Dev, president of D-STAR, believes his company’s latest product will take a lead role in that innovation. The stealth propulsion system the company is designing for a future UAV called the Great Horned Owl will generate quiet electrical power from gasoline or diesel fuel and enable an electrically driven, low-noise flight. It’s named for one of nature’s most stealthy predators, and some of its technology was inspired by the unique and silent design of owl feathers.
“Our goal is to be quieter than 60 decibels at a distance of 10 meters [33 feet]. That’s lower than the quiet environment at a bank,” Dev says. “The goal is to observe without being observed.”
Dev hopes the technology used for the Great Horned Owl will ultimately be made available to the public. He predicts unmanned vehicles will some day be commonplace and estimates self-piloted passenger planes could be here within a decade, and commercial automated cars 10 years after that.
It may sound far-fetched, but science is moving rapidly. Google has been experimenting with self-driving car technology, and its automated cars have already logged more than 500,000 highway miles.
“There are some apprehensions about unmanned things in general,” Dev says, “but almost all car crashes are caused by humans. Similarly, not all, but most airplane crashes are caused by human error. The joke is that in the future, transport airliners will have a crew of two—a human and a dog. The human’s job will be to feed the dog and the dog’s job will be to make sure the human doesn’t touch any of the controls.”