These days have been a long time coming for William Harvey, CEO of Gaithersburg-based Brandebury Tool Co.
With the federal government pushing to open the nation’s airspace to unmanned aircraft by 2015, businesses like Brandebury and Proxy Technologies are standing on a wave of the next big thing.
“I think [unmanned craft] will radically change human transport in the future,” said Harvey, who has worked on unmanned systems for more than 30 years. His business, which operates out of the Montgomery County Airpark, has produced fixed-wing airframes for L-3’s TigerShark unmanned aerial vehicle, among other products in the field.
Worldwide annual sales of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are expected to grow from $5.2 billion in 2013 to $11.6 billion by 2023, according to research company Teal Group Corp.
The economic impact of the industry in the U.S. alone is projected to rise from $2.3 billion in 2015 to $10.1 billion in 2025, according to the Arlington, Va.-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. That’s assuming the Federal Aviation Administration meets its congressional mandate to fully integrate UAVs into the national airspace by 2015.
Maryland’s economic impact from the unmanned industry between 2015 and 2025 is expected to be about $2 billion, the 14th highest among states. California tops that list with $14.4 billion.
The government’s work in this area includes the FAA recently choosing a partnership between Virginia Tech and Rutgers as one of six nationally to test the integration of unmanned craft into the airspace. A proposal by the University of Maryland, which has researchers working on unmanned projects, was not chosen, but Maryland officials signed a collaborative agreement with the Virginia Tech-Rutgers partnership.
That should give a boost to companies like Brandebury and Proxy, officials said.
“It could provide additional avenues of research and development,” said Bob Davis, CEO and president of Proxy, which formed about a decade ago and initially worked on developing actual unmanned aircraft itself.
Proxy also has its operations center at the Montgomery County Airpark, where employees work on Proteus automation software and a hardware system called PACS that they say can convert manned aircraft into “optionally piloted vehicles.”
“We have converted four aircraft so far, and are working to get into a larger volume production,” Davis said.
Bethesda defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has long been involved in the unmanned craft industry.
The company has developed unmanned cargo helicopters and aerial systems like the Desert Hawk to allow soldiers to see what’s over the next hill. It is helping with the SR-72 unmanned hypersonic spy plane being developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and has worked on DARPA’s Falcon hypersonic craft, which reached Mach 20 — about 13,000 miles per hour — on a 2011 test flight.
The SR-72 is an “end-state concept” envisioned for flight around 2030, said Heather Kelso, a spokeswoman for Lockheed’s advanced technology Skunk Works division.
Lockheed also developed the Marlin underwater vehicle that has been used by oil companies like Chevron and others as a quicker and safer way to conduct undersea inspections of rigs and other equipment. The 10-foot long Marlin, which can dive up to 1,000 feet below the surface, gave Chevron immediate information, rather than having to sometimes wait days for data.
In the near future, some envision unmanned craft fighting fires, working to prevent crime and delivering packages and the mail. Even Bethesda-based Wydler Brothers, a realty company affiliated with Long & Foster, tested drones to help produce a sales video of a neighborhood, according to published reports.
“There are a lot of civilian applications,” Harvey said. “It has to make sense to the majority of the population. People will need to get over the feeling of having their privacy invaded. It’s not just about surveillance, but there are a lot of applications. ... It will happen. The parts are in place.”