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Drones and Sensors: A New Emerging Market

23 February 2021

According to recent forecasts, the market for military drones and sensors will grow rapidly and dynamically in the coming years. This will have a significant influence on the drone industry as well as on sensors and payloads production, including a variety of components like electro-optical and infrared detectors (EO/IR), which make up for a significant share of the sector’s growth. Furthermore, experts estimate that the total global spending on military UAV systems will reach about $98 billion in the next decade.

An analysis conducted by the TEAL Group regarding worldwide military UAV production showed that, between 2020/2021, “UAV production is expected to increase from $5.6 billion annually in 2020 to $14 billion in 2029, totalling $95.5 billion in the next ten years [..]. Military UAV research spending would add another $64.5 billion over the decade.”

Several stakeholders have made appeals for production increase of ultra-modern, accurate sensors and communication systems of drone industry and various militaries. For instance, in January 2021, U.S. Navy unmanned aircraft researchers announced the Landing Autonomous Navigation Technology for Enhanced Recovery to Navy Ships (LANTERNS) project to improve communication between ships and aircraft. Furthermore, Elistair, the US tethered drone company, affirmed during the Webinar “Drone Force in Modern Warfare” hosted by Finabel on the 2nd of February 2021 that the global military demand for drones is growing, and their main application is tactical networks for SA, SR and battle management systems; siege/hostage video streaming to command posts; pre-planned event security; counter-terrorism operations; small SF team video/voice/data; border security operations. A massive request for tethered drone has come from North America and Asia, especially China and Singapore.

As for the typology of sensor technologies applied to drones, there are hyperspace sensors, wide-area surveillance, multi-spectral targeting systems, light detection and ranging. These are used for different functions such as navigation, collision avoidance, data acquisition, and they enable drones to conduct activities like: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, delivery, transportation, combat operations and battle damage assessment. However, it seems that the real military attraction from the drones’ market emerges not from the possibility to involve individual drones during military operations but drone swarms. These are drones that communicate with each other. The scholars Zachary Kallenborn and Philipp C. Bleek define drone swarms as “multiple unmanned platforms and/or weapons deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behaviour based on communication with one another”.

In November 2020, the European Defence Agency completed its first meeting regarding member state defence plans in which it highlighted the importance of investment in anti-drone weaponry. It is worth noting that drones can be considered both offensive and defensive systems. As such, various military forces are considering the purchase of counter-drone technologies. The EDA’s “Coordinated Annual Review on Defence”, submitted to defence ministers in November 2020, recommends “to develop a European capability to counter unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to improve force protection, as well as contributing to establish a European standard for Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD),”. Moreover, the analysis “concludes that European capability approaches towards A2/AD are clearly at a crossroads, whereby the capability is either developed collaboratively, or the capability will not be developed for European forces”.

In conclusion, drones and sensor technologies are considered an emerging market. They are of particular interest to military forces who must tackle new hybrid and asymmetric threats. EU and NATO Member States consider the importance of the AI revolution and the introduction of technological innovations in ground forces equipment as a complementary and necessary asset for operating in current scenarios. However, the required military capabilities must be developed jointly by European States to guarantee continuity and coherence in the creation of efficient and interoperable European forces.

Written by Lucia SANTABARBARA, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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