Growing UAV/UAS Market Helps Drive Military Imaging System Needs
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
While the U.S. debates how best to utilize the growing number of commercially available unmanned aerial vehicles — the airborne element of an unmanned aircraft system — international markets are flying ahead, supported by commercial applications in asset and infrastructure and associated demand for airborne imaging systems.
They’re not as numerous as cell phone cameras, but the buzz is that they are increasing quickly.
That’s the general consensus, assuming regulatory hurdles are overcome, when it comes to growth in the military and civilian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) markets and the broader unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that include telemetry and control for the UAV.
In 2014, the Teal Group, an analyst firm specializing in aerospace and defense industries based in Fairfax, Virginia, predicted that the global UAV market would account for $91 billion during the next 10 years, growing from $6.4 billion annually in 2014 to $11.5 billion in 2024; that’s $2 billion more than they forecasted in 2012. Of that market, military UAVs were expected to account for 89% in 2014, with civilian applications gaining market share to 14% by 2023. More importantly to the machine vision market, the Teal Group predicts that UAV payloads, which always include industrial-grade imaging systems, will grow from $2.8 billion in 2014 to $5.6 billion by 2023. The only blip on the radar is that visible and thermal imaging system demand may soften in the near term as military applications adopt more radio frequency synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensor packages due to changes in geographic deployments.
Within the overall UAV market, small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) used by civilian industries are expected to grow even faster, with revenues increasing from $1.5 billion worldwide in 2014 to $3 billion by 2017, according to Dave Litwiller of Aeryon Labs Inc. (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), who presented on the growing use and needs — including imaging systems — of sUAS at the A3 Business Forum held in January in Orlando, Florida. The greatest threat to the growth of commercially available airborne imaging systems is regulations, said Litwiller, pointing to France as an example. The French government approved legal commercial sUAS flights in 2012, and between 2014 and 2015, the country’s sUAS market increased from $200 million to $360 million as companies used sUAS imaging systems to monitor chemical plants, stacks, and pipelines; for power generation infrastructure; and to inspect buildings, towers, bridges, and agricultural crops.
“A fully loaded unmanned, vertical takeoff aircraft costs one-fifth of what it costs to fly a manned helicopter for one hour,” Litwiller said, “…and the imaging system makes up about one-fifth of the value of the sUAS.”
While smaller “drones” haven’t typically used industrial-grade imaging equipment developed by the machine vision industry, Litwiller said that the opportunities for computer vision are significant as manufacturers look to add functionality more in line with traditional military UAV operations, such as digital image stabilization and adjusting imaging systems to varying lighting conditions, tracking designated objects or targets, and aggregating or stitching together contiguous images for wide area mapping.
Companies like IMPERX (Boca Raton, Florida) and Teledyne DALSA (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) will undoubtedly continue to benefit from the need for larger cameras with greater dynamic range for platforms like the U.S. military’s ARGUS — which has a 1.8 gigapixel camera capable of capturing high-resolution video of up to 30 square miles at a time — but all parts of the machine vision industry have a role to play in the UAV market.
“Machine vision technologies deliver really clear advantages for military imaging, including easier cabling and wider computing support to help simplify system design and lower costs,” says John Butler, sales manager at Pleora Technologies (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada).
Pleora has long served the military markets with video interfaces that convert Camera Link cameras into Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) to allow images to be more easily sent over copper or fiber cabling in rugged, high electromagnetic interference (EMI) environments, such as military vehicles. Development is now underway that will allow these products to move into new applications.
“Battery-powered UAV systems, for example, have much stricter power budgets than a vehicle-based system,” says Butler. “Across all military imaging systems we’re seeing an evolution towards image processing on ARM-based platforms to help reduce weight and power. There’s also a push towards 10 GigE to aggregate multiple cameras on a single system and ensure forward compatibility with higher-resolution, faster sensors and imaging devices.”
According to Butler, many military platforms are based around ARM processing architectures. Pleora recently added ARM support in addition to x86 architecture support and unified its Windows and Linux operating environments while exploring the option of extending to real-time operating systems such as QNX. “ARM support makes the whole system more power efficient,” Butler says.
Pleora also is looking at new chip sets and heat sinks for 10 GigE frame grabbers that will ease the power consumption/thermal dissipation challenges in compact imaging systems. While GigE Vision has gained fast traction in military applications, other new technologies may also have an impact on system design.
“GigE has been a natural fit for military imaging applications, and 10 GigE will be key as applications become more complex,” Butler says. “There may be an opportunity for GigE Vision over wireless, especially in security and remote surveillance applications. USB3 Vision has a lot of appeal in other imaging markets, and it’s in the early phases of deployment in military applications.”
USB3 Vision may become a larger player in military applications where cable robustness, flexibility, and shielding are critical, as recently reported last month with Components Express’s (Woodridge, Illinois) decision to adopt a low-diameter shielded coaxial cable for its USB3 Vision cables to reach up to 25 meters. “The shielding is much better than twisted pair, and the entire design is modular so all the parts unplug from one another,” says Ray Berst, president of Components Express. “If something breaks, or if you have issues with a cable that is running through an airplane wing, you can terminate it on site. In aerospace and military applications, there often is not enough space to run a cable with a connector, so it’s important to be able to terminate on site.”
While the verdict is still out on whether governments around the world will embrace commercial unmanned aerial imaging and if so, to what extent, existing military and commercial markets show that the aerial genie is already out of the bottle. As sUAS help workers to perform dangerous duties such as inspecting buildings, cell towers, and ultra-high voltage power lines, the demand for machine vision hardware and software can only benefit from this fast-paced and high-flying industry.