Unmanned vehicles push wireless, the rise of the drones

October 05, 2011 //By Rick Merritt
Military electronics is going through a mobile boom in drones—a rise in unmanned planes, trucks and ships—that is just beginning.

In some ways, military mobile systems are less sophisticated than the smartphones, e-readers and tablets that are their civilian counterparts. The military mobiles have not yet adopted multicore processors or robust virtualization software, and they are just starting to establish open application platforms. But they are pushing the envelope in the use of software-defined radios and sensors.

According to an October 2010 report to Congress, the U.S. military uses more than 10 types of unmanned aircraft. Various military branches logged more than 450,000 flight hours in at least 6,000 unmanned aircraft during 2009 alone, the report said.

By 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense projects it will have 197 groups with unmanned vehicles at 105 locations in the United States alone, up 35 percent from the number of groups last year. That does not even count the adoption of drones by non-military government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, Homeland Security and others, all of which are just starting what is expected to be a broad adoption of drones for a variety of uses.

Further out on the horizon, intelligent transportation systems that guide consumer cars along smart highways have been on the drawing board for years.

Google’s recent work on a self-driving car is the latest wrinkle in bringing automated transport to the average garage.

One report pegged the 2009-2013 budget for military drones at $15 billion. The New York Times, however, reported that the Navy alone plans to spend
$12 billion on Global Hawk unmanned surveillance planes, which are estimated to cost as much as $218 million each. That’s great news for companies such as General Atomics, Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Co. and others that make drones. (The companies declined interviews for this report, citing the sensitive nature of military drone programs.)

The vehicles are often loaded with a variety of sophisticated sensors and the intelligence to process data in real-time, minimizing the need for communications

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