Unfolding Eight Unmanned Aircraft that Can Improve Our World


A remote-controlled helicopter that fights fires. A five-pound quad copter that gives a bird’s eye view of disaster zones. A hand-launched aircraft that produces detailed terrain maps.

Beyond their potential to deliver packages to your front door, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are already scanning the earth, carrying heavy supplies and fending off fires, among dozens of other useful tasks. Increasingly, UAS technology is freeing the operator from the basics of flying and unlocking new possibilities for the future.

While the military market continues to be a strong player, the commercial and civil sectors stand poised for rapid growth.

Advancing military capability and commercial uses

From the K-MAX to the High Altitude Airship, Lockheed Martin has created a broad range of unmanned aircraft systems delivering intelligence, communications and cargo delivery capabilities for military customers.

The focus across many of these systems is on improving:

  • Endurance (time flying without refueling)
  • Persistence (ability to linger on demand in an area to collect data)
  • Payload capability (ability to carry more cargo, sensors or other payloads)
  • Flexibility (to make system operations easier, save more lives and increase the likelihood of success)

Now, civilian uses are primed to expand, as unmanned aerial technology is proving its utility in areas such as firefighting, precision agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, search and rescue and law enforcement, to name a few.

“The defense market continues to be robust, and there’s a lot of investment both in the U.S. and internationally,” said Lockheed Martin’s Jay McConville. “The mission of the UAS for defense purposes is well understood – although expanding – but the growing civil and commercial markets are more diverse. They will likely rival or even exceed the defense side of unmanned systems in the fairly near future.”

Recently, a small Indago vertical takeoff and landing quad-rotor UAS took part in its first real-world firefighting effort, helping officials in Australia by flying over a large fire and using advanced sensors to relay information on the fire’s characteristics. Through its contributions, Indago helped save an estimated 100 homes and over $50 million in property value.

Last November, the mid-size, cargo-carrying K-MAX helicopter participated in a firefighting demonstration in Rome, New York, operating in tandem with an Indago. Indago transmitted data to an operator, who directed K-MAX to extinguish the flames. K-MAX dumped more than 24,000 gallons of water on the fire in just one hour.

“We focus on control technologies, common software architecture and autonomy so operators can be less burdened with the basics of flying and can concentrate better on their mission – whether it’s putting out a roaring fire or delivering supplies to a remote location.”

Driving customized solutions, autonomy and common architecture

According to McConville, the key to success for unmanned aircraft systems is to offer a variable portfolio of capabilities, both aircraft and ground-control systems, that can be tailored to specific needs or that an end-user can tailor to their own needs.

“We focus on control technologies, common software architecture and autonomy so operators can be less burdened with the basics of flying and can concentrate better on their mission – whether it’s putting out a roaring fire or delivering supplies to a remote location,” said McConville. “We’re pushing the envelope on all of those things, and by broadly sharing information and ideas, we’re positively affecting all of the various systems we’re working on, making the best use of resources and driving greater affordability.”

McConville noted that by embracing an open-architecture strategy, programs maintain the flexibility to buy the latest commercial hardware to upgrade a system.


Capitalizing on the F-35

Another way Lockheed Martin is advancing the technological curve on unmanned aircraft systems is by tapping into its experience with the F-35 fighter aircraft as well as with other single-seat fighter jets such as the F-22 and F-16.

“We are now able to operate unmanned systems with 60 percent fewer people compared to legacy or existing unmanned aircraft systems operating now,” said Bob Ruszkowski at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works®. “We are pushing toward a more intuitive operator-vehicle interface and re-using a lot of techniques and software from manned aircraft. It comes down to good systems engineering and leveraging decades of Lockheed Martin manned aircraft and pilot-vehicle interface experience.”

An unfolding and expanding future

Breaking through technological barriers suggests a growing array of potential uses, according to Ruszkowski.

“Conducting surveillance for pipelines and infrastructure, for example, can be done with relatively small unmanned aircraft, which are fairly inexpensive. There are other types of surveillance for civilian use, such as collecting farming data and gathering information on crops and soil composition.”

With the rapidly growing use of unmanned aircraft, there is also a need for more effective regulatory frameworks to ensure safe system operations, something Lockheed Martin is working with industry and government to achieve. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration recently announced plans to study the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system and issued draft rules for the commercial use of small UAS (under 55 pounds), measures many see as a welcome first step in this important regulatory effort.

“We’re grappling with regulatory issues concerning routine transit and training procedures for unmanned systems operating in and through civil air space that will probably get solved in the next five to 10 years,” said Ruszkowski.

And as it does, the UAS market is poised for takeoff, creating possibilities and realities that were the stuff of science fiction not long ago.