Earlier this year, the US Department of Defense released a video of its 104 micro UAVs, swarming in the skies over the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California while collectively making decisions together. The battery-powered 3D printed Perdix UAVs – which are based entirely on commercial components used in smartphones – began as an MIT student project that was later brought into the MIT Lincoln Labs to be modified for defence application.

It’s amazing how often we are starting to see the reverse of what we are used to when it comes to the commercialization of defence technologies: where commercial industry develops technology and then the defence community adapts it.

Dropped from two F-18s, the 104 micro UAVs collaborated in “missions” at the China Lake U.S. Navy test range facility, communicating with each other and swarming with a piercing sound loud enough to be heard from the ground. ARS Technology reported “the drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviours, including self-healing communications, self-adapting formation flying, and collective decision-making. While the prototype drones’ orders were simply to ‘patrol’ an area, they could conceivably be used for surveillance, battlefield communications networks, or even attacks — imagine a swarm of self-guiding flying hand grenades.” This reminds me of the Lilliputians holding down the giant by swarming him in Gulliver’s Travels. The Lilliputians are described as “men six inches in height, but possessing all the pretension and self-importance of full-sized men. They are mean and nasty, vicious, morally corrupt, hypocritical and deceitful, jealous and envious, filled with greed and ingratitude.” They are, however, in fact, completely human.

Is this a fair parallel to draw to swarming micro UAVs? What are the future uses of UAV technology? And while the majority of technological innovation has traditionally come from the defence sector, could we see a lot of innovation arise from the commercial sectors, driven by efficiency gains and desire for maximizing profits, and then applied to the defence sector? Another question, and I am not an expert here, but what are the moral implications of how far we take this technology development? UAVs are certainly at the top of key technologies to watch in defence, but I think it is important that we break it down to immediate steps in how we can improve efficiencies, reduce cost, reduce risk, and improve performance across many sectors — of which those technological advancements can be applied to the defense sector.

I recently participated in Toronto’s first major UAV show: a new event which was opened to the public and backed by the Cambridge House, a major international event business.

This event was led by Adam Sax, the CEO of Canadian tech start-up, Sky Guys (a Next Gen Dragon’s Den investment of mine). Sky Guys has developed a unique defence surveillance UAV with commercial capabilities specific to the energy sector. The event was targeted primarily for the average consumer, with the vision to be like an auto show in the future, but the show attracted significant fanfare from the defence community, namely Boeing, General Atomics and the NATO Association of Canada.

David Funkhouser, a Business Development Executive from Boeing-owned Insitu Inc., spoke up about the current UAV technology and applications. While he acknowledged that the traditional value proposition for using UAVs was under the filter of situations that are either “dull, dirty, or dangerous,” UAVs are now finding more and more utility in the commercial sectors. “This transition will continue to grow and accelerate as regulatory environments become more tolerant of UAVs. As a result, we will witness exponential improvements in agronomy, cartography, geology, hydrology, and a host of other earth sciences over the coming years,” he remarked. Personally, I loved the explanation that Facebook beat out Friendster in becoming the dominant platform because we needed the confluence of specific technologies to come together at the exact right time and become mainstream, specifically, in this instance, the digital camera. That’s my way of conceptualizing the requirement for all of these various technologies to reach certain levels of saturation before moving up to the next step.

Funkhouser continued explaining the benefits the commercial industry would receive from defence research and development: “Sensors that were originally designed to detect explosive materials will be employed to detect wheat rust and other crop pathogens. Sensors that were originally developed to track the movements of enemy personnel, will be employed to track the movements of cattle herds. Moreover, the ability to inexpensively collect and process data in real-time will enable farmers, ranchers, explorers, and scientists to observe conditions, orient their resources accordingly, make informed decisions, and act upon those decisions with more speed and efficiency than ever before.”

He did, however, further acknowledge the flip I am predicting: governments will start to flip, that governments will leverage commercial R&D more and more and seek out “commercial, off-the-shelf” (COTS) solutions for defence procurements. “By leveraging industry’s ability to create and develop technologies at the speed of market demand rather than at the speed of government bureaucracy, urgent defence procurements can be made with more speed and efficiency than ever before. Sensors originally developed to monitor highway traffic have been leveraged for terrain mapping. 3D printers have been leveraged to convert terrain mapping data into 3D models. Augmented reality software developed for video games has been leveraged to enhance battlespace awareness. As commercial unmanned aviation continues to grow, I believe we’ll continue to witness the adaptation of such commercially developed technologies for defence purposes,” Funkhouser confirmed. The relationship and R&D between the commercial, defence and academic sectors will undoubtedly continue to be symbiotic and ongoing.

I was able to speak to a few innovative Canadian tech businesses this month about what they bring to the table in this sector.

Pegasus Aeronautics Corporation, which is a small, proudly Canadian tech business located in Kitchener, Ontario, develops and manufactures power units that vastly improve industrial and military UAV endurance and payload capacity. The powertrains are designed to increase UAV airtimes significantly, multiplied more than eight times by using the Pegasus system. The powertrains also improve the logistical capabilities of UAV platforms, allowing users to power their UAVs using fuel as opposed to requiring battery swaps in the field. Matt McRoberts commented that “these systems can be easily implemented by existing UAV manufacturers, giving them the tools necessary to make cutting-edge UAV systems.”

The company’s intellectual property allows them to miniaturize the systems that are commonly implemented in ships and trains into extremely small packages that are usable on UAV platforms. The company’s intention is to give manufacturers the ability to build advanced, high-endurance UAV systems as an attractive method of obtaining actionable data, on or off the battlefield.

Another interesting Canadian technology business is Battlefield International Inc. This SME focuses on fluid control and conveyance, primarily quick disconnect fuel couplings in UAVs. They deliver fluid quick disconnects for many of the world’s top UAV manufacturers, including Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and Textron Systems, and have recently started selling into the land vehicle market, with the UAV technology driving overall innovation that is applicable to various cross sectors. The company’s international sales manager, Michael Falk, is confident in the company’s future, remarking that their entrance into the land systems market make them well positioned to deliver products designed to meet the harsh environmental challenges of this industry, which should become global standards in the very near future.

Today, it is not difficult to find people and companies, particularly small Canadian tech businesses, innovating in the field of UAVs, or as some refer to them, often negatively, “drones.” Personally, I see it as exciting progress, that, applied to such a wide variety of sectors, could make us vastly more competitive on a multitude of fronts. When I think back to the poor hero of Gulliver’s Travels, while parallels can be drawn to this scary army of “drones” marching almost mindlessly, taking down good people, I personally do not see the reality in quite the same way. Personally, I still see a human with the same moral compass behind every command, even if it’s a command to perform a “swarm” mission. I still see the need to follow the same rules of engagement that we would if there was no UAV technology in place. While there will be a resistance to increasing technological development that comes with this “march of the drones,” we cannot forget the advantages that come from continued R&D in such an innovative sector.


Nicole Verkindt is the technology editor of Vanguard magazine and founder and president of OMX. She is a board member of the Canadian Commercial Corporation and was recently appointed to the board of the Peter Munk School of Global Affairs.