DSEi is the world's largest fully integrated security and defense exhibition, or at least that is what the website says. The claim is bold, but with over 1300 exhibitors from nearly 100 countries, the claim looks on paper to be valid. Once inside London's ExCel conference center, you certainly get the feeling that the promotion literature is true; the place is huge and completely packed with exhibitiors, armoured vehicles and display stands.
I have been before and this year a curious realisation struck me: Drones. What had previously seemed like the preserve of the bigger companies like Boeing or LockheedMartin (showing off their remotely controlled/autonomous helicopters and aircraft), is being more and more taken up by the smaller, niched companies as well. UAVs in particular featured prominently, from the large types rivaling the Westland Lynx helicopter parked outside, to micro-sized quad copters and everything in between. Foolishly I had not taken a camera, so I apologise in advance for the lack of quality photographs, but I still had my iPhone, and at least I managed to get some shots!
I'd like to start by talking about quads... Just about every major manufacturer had one on their stand, usually about the same size (call it between 15" and 18" between opposite motors) and all boasted roughly the same sorts of features. Yes, you got GPS and HD video, but the battery life is still only roughly 30 minutes, so the performace is still roughly the same as the ones that people on this site, me included, build ourselves and use. All have the same mission though, to safely observe over the visual horizon, be that a house, a ridge or in woodland.
One company, more usually known for making soldier field kit, showed off a range of three to me, the smallest being a baby FPV version (HD of course) that was barely bigger than my hand. The control unit and two quads fitted neatly in a small daysack and weighed barely anything. Want something bigger? How about one that had two HD cameras (down and forward)? They had that too in a form factor that was not much larger than the peewee version. Need more payload? How about a Y6 with external camera mounts? Apparently they had a bigger one that could lift 9 pounds (!) bt it was too big to fit in their stand.
Ok, so quads aren't your thing. One Itialian company was demoing a roughly 2m flying wing with a gimbled camera mount in the drone arena (it was tethered to the ceiling and transmitting imagery back to the "troops") but I was drawn to a small, black UAV with short, stubby wings. Constructed mainly from carbon fibre, it's weight was low, but it had an endurance of about 2.5 hours. The main draw was it's portability though, as the wings were designed in such a way that they could be rolled around the body allowing the entire UAV to be transported in a three feet long tube not much wider than about five inches, roughly the size of a modern light anti-tank weapon. When deployed, and it flight, it would look like a crow, albeit a fast one!
I also got to meet people from the team that produced the printed airframe that I, and others, posted on here a few weeks ago: 3T (http://3trpd.co.uk). In addition to a "fresh" airframe hanging from the ceiling, the one from the news item was on display in the corner of the booth, running a test program to move the control surfaces in sequence. I asked about the construction and was told that it is primarily bayonet-type fixing, but there are only four sections in total and the control surfaces are built in to the individual sections; no gaps, no joins. If you break a section, you simply print out another and clip it on. Fixing appears to be so last year.
I was actually quite surprised by it, not in the least because the airframe's skin is actually quite rough. I'm used to EPP foam or film coverings and these are by and large quite smooth surfaces, but this was almost furry, like sharkskin. There was no denying the performance though. If you haven't seen the film, please do so. It is a testament to what is capable NOW and a glimpse of what could be possible in the future. (New Scientist Article)
That brings me on to 3D printing. Strolling away from the 3T stand, I saw what looked like printed sections of wings. A quick chat later and I found out that they were single section wings with a square-section honeycomb reinforcment. The wing flexed a little rotationally, but was very solid up and down and weighed almost nothing. The quality was also very good, the only way I could tell it was printed was by the sharkskin feel to it and slight pixellation (for want of a better word) on some of the thin parts of the wing. Given that the wing was about two feet in length, I had assumed that it must be two sections joined, but the printer that had made it could apparently handle component heights of up to 900mm and a maximum width of 900mm. Following the pointed finger, I looked across and saw a pump manifold appearing before my eyes. I've wanted a Makerbot for a while now, but I am going to have to apologise to Maker Industries. I _really_ want that printer. It might look like a cupbard crossed with an oven, but I'm sure I could find a place for it in my workshop!
The big driver for every company I spoke to seemed to be simplicity. The concept of de-skilling the use of these recon vehicles seemed to be at the forefront of everyone's designs. Our own HappyKillmore is doing a good job with the GCS, but soldiers just need a rugged tablet that they can use to both tell the UAV where to go and then display the video back. Controls are more Playstation than Star Trek now, and the unit costs are coming down as the core technology becomes smaller and cheaper. Reapers and their kin might still be the preserve of the military and their friendly nations, but the time of the prosumer UAV is here and, to be honest, I think that there is very little between us and the big boys when it comes to a lot of things. They might have access to newer, smaller technology, or better composites, or faster prototyping facilities, but that trickles down. It's only a matter of time.
Sadly, I missed out on the "My other vehicle is unmanned" bumper stickers that were being given out, but I do have a copy of "Unmanned Systems" magazine to read through.