The state of unmanned systems

The Defense Department is expected to continue to invest in unmanned systems in air, on land and at sea as missions expand and capabilities grow.

In the area of autonomous platforms, unmanned aerial vehicles have become the most matured segment to-date as the military has quickly valued their abilities in surveillance and strike missions.

But as for at sea and on land, the competitive landscape for vendors is largely still shaking itself out as they require more development to get to production, according to a new report posted Thursday by Govini.

Of those three domains, unmanned aerial vehicles been by far the largest component over the past six federal fiscal years at 49.9 percent of overall autonomous systems contract spending, the public sector big data and analytics firm found for its latest taxonomy report.

UAV platform contract obligations totaled $17 billion in federal fiscal 2017. Robotics and unmanned ground vehicles saw nearly $4 billion and unmanned underwater vehicles came to $1.6 billion to show the relative infancy of those markets.

The competitive playing field on the UAV platform side is largely cornered by a select few. Govini identified Northrop Grumman as the largest recipient of UAV platform obligations followed by General Atomics, whose Predator vehicle garnered much attention for its use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Next are Boeing, Textron, Aerovironment and Raytheon.

An average of 2.2 competitive bids were submitted per UAV platform contract obligation -- 307 in total obligations over six years -- to further indicate the narrowed field of players and high barrier to entry. As an example, three, Boeing, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin, are competing for the Navy’s MQ-25 carrier-based refueling drone. Northrop Grumman dropped out last year.

That said there may be a word of caution going forward as the Defense Department in particular looks to the next generation of UAVs. Research-and-development obligations grew 67.8 percent over the six-year period to $438.8 million and support services obligations increased 41.7 percent to $1.6 billion.

Govini says those spending shifts suggest new competitors could come into the fold as DOD seeks UAVs with greater autonomous and machine teaming functions in order to operate in contested environments -- not unlike manned planes -- and can communicate with both manned and unmanned aircraft.

Unmanned undersea vehicles are one-tenth the size of UAVs in terms of obligations Govini tracked but there are signs that UUVs present another opportunity for vendor. The U.S. military wants to put $3 billion of investments toward undersea systems over the coming years, the Washington Post reported last year.

The past two years in particular have seen legacy defense contractors increasingly look at UUVs amid expectations Navy will eye these technologies in the same way the Air Force did UAVs during the 2000s. Look at Boeing’s acquisition of Liquid Robotics in 2016 as an example, plus L3 Technologies’ triple play of purchases of UUV companies last year. Lockheed Martin also invested in UUV maker Ocean Aero last year.

Whoever wins the Navy’s “Orca” underwater vehicle contract later this year will also gain an initial unmanned foothold. That competition is a head-to-head showdown between prime bidders Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Boeing has shown serious intent to win Orca as its partners include Huntington Ingalls Industries and L3 as teammates.

However, the infancy of UUVs and current emphasis on research-and-development spending could present opportunities for competitors to come into the fold. Govini identified as key technology areas to watch sonar, thermal and electric propulsion and battery power. Raytheon, Northrop, Lockheed and Science Applications International Corp. are looking to integrate sonar advancements, the report says.

Robotics and unmanned ground vehicles are regaining prominence as those obligations have rebounded from $681.8 million in fiscal 2014 to $1.6 billion last fiscal year mostly on R&D spending increases. Those numbers show a turnaround from sequestration cuts and defense spending shifts.

Govini also forecasts a compound annual growth rate of 10.2 percent through fiscal 2021 with Army, Navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programs among the drivers. The research firm sees cognitive engineering advancements as a driver of ground robotics as vehicles learn how to operate on their own and collaborate with other like platforms.

Platform manufacturers have been able to gain a foothold in UGV research work alongside the university laboratories, federally funded R&D centers, commercial laboratories and niche engineering firms.

Some of the major platform makers Govini listed are General Dynamics, Boston Dynamics, QinetiQ and iRobot. Arlington Capital Partners acquired the iRobot defense business in 2016 and subsequently renamed it Endeavor Robotics.