UAV Market Set for 10 Years of Growth

by | Jul 8, 2011

By Steve Zaloga and David Rockwell, Teal Group Corp. (, Fairfax, Va. 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) make up the aerospace industry's most dynamic growth sector. UAV spending is on pace to double during the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $5.9 billion annually to $11.3 billion, totaling just more than $94 billion, as detailed in a recent Teal Group market study: World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems”2011.

The most significant catalyst to UAV growth has been by the U.S. military. Tied to the general trend toward information warfare and network-centric systems, as well as peacekeeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, UAVs are a key element in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portion of this revolution. Additionally, a new breed of hunter-killer UAVs is redefining military tactics worldwide.

The study suggests the United States will account for 77 percent of the research and development spending on UAV technology during the next decade and about 69 percent of the procurement. These figures represent higher shares of the market than for defense spending in general”discrepancies that can be attributed to heavier U.S. investment in cutting-edge technologies compared with the rest of the world. This follows trends in other cutting-edge technologies observed during the last decade in areas such as precision-guided weapons, information and sensor technology, and military application of space systems.

Teal Group expects UAV sales will follow recent patterns of high-tech arms procurement worldwide, with the Asia-Pacific area representing the second largest market, followed closely by Europe. The Asia-Pacific region may represent an even larger segment of the market, but several significant players in the region, namely Japan and China, aren't especially transparent about their plans compared with Europe. As in the case of many cutting-edge aerospace products, Africa and Latin America are expected to be modest markets for UAVs.

Additionally, a civil market for UAVs is beginning to emerge, held back only by limited access to the National Airspace System (NAS), a situation that's being addressed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Teal Group expects a civil UAV market to slowly emerge during the next decade, beginning with government organizations that require surveillance systems similar to military UAVs such as coast guards, border patrol organizations and other national security organizations.

Electro-Optical/Infrared Sensor Programs
The UAV electro-optical/infrared sensors (EO/IRS) system market has entered a period of continuing steady growth. Teal Group estimates that U.S. spending alone on such systems will grow from $813 million in fiscal year 2011 to nearly $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2020. However, Teal Group expects a lull in UAV electro-optics funding during the next year or two, as funding for several new programs declines and full-rate production ramps up. Additionally, U.S. Air Force Predator production is ending. Following this lull, sensors for the U.S. Air Force Reaper and U.S. Army Grey Eagle endurance UAVs will drive continued growth, as will wide field-of-view (WFOV) EO/IR systems and development and production of increasingly sophisticated sensors for smaller tactical and mini/micro/nano UAVs.

Several new programs during the next few years, such as the U.S. Navy's Small Tactical Unmanned Air System (STUAS), aim to replace first-generation urgent procurements (ScanEagle) with larger air vehicles (Integrator) that will carry more sophisticated sensors. This seems to be the goal of the next generation, and if these smaller UAVs are procured in the hundreds or thousands as planned, their much more expensive sensors will generate continuing growth in EO sensor budgets. Because an EO/IR sensor is still the default sensor for nearly every UAV, the market will remain secure.

This contrasts somewhat with the other sensor types, where even synthetic aperture radars (SARs) will continue as special requirements”not developed or bought for many programs. Electronic Warfare (EW) and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) systems will continue as even more specialized equipment. Growth rates may exceed EO sensors in some cases, but not be as stable as EO.

Sensor Payloads.
Typical medium-altitude endurance UAVs, such as the Predator, fly at about 30,000 feet for 24 hours or more, with sensor payloads weighing between 250-400 kilograms. High-altitude endurance UAVs, such as the Global Hawk, fly at up to 60,000 feet for 24 hours or more, with sensor payloads weighing up to 1,000 kilograms or more (900 kilograms for the RQ-4A Global Hawk; 1,350 kg for the RQ-4B). Typical tactical UAVs weigh between 150-500 kilograms, with sensor payloads weighing between 20-100 kilograms.

Predator Trumps Global Hawk.
Unlike what many foresaw a few years ago, Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk hasn't matured into the dominant UAV EO/IR program of the decade. In April 2010, General Atomics' Predator/Reaper aircraft passed the 1 million flight hours milestone, with more than 400 aircraft produced, flying nearly 80,000 missions”more than 85 percent of which have been flown in combat. This compares with about four Global Hawks in service in 2010. There had been fewer than 2,000 Global Hawk combat missions by that time.

Instead, Northrop Grumman has taken home the taxpayers' money for air vehicle development while General Atomics has provided 40 times the EO/ISR effectiveness on the battlefield. Global Hawk EO/IRS systems will consist of a few Raytheon Enhanced Integrated Sensor System (EISS) builds per year, along with periodic upgrades. Predator has been procured in large numbers, now being followed by continuing procurements of sophisticated sensor systems (also by Raytheon) for Reaper and Grey Eagle UAVs. These EO/IRS systems for General Atomics air vehicles will dominate endurance UAV funding for most of the next decade.

Maritime Sensors.
In March 2010, the U.S. Navy released a request for information for a next-generation follow-on to the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D), the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS). Perhaps notable from an operational as well as a sensors perspective is the new inclusion of surveillance in the previously all combat UAV. At a minimum, according to Rear Adm. Ted Kraft, U.S. Navy director of ISR, UCLASS will need to have radar and an automatic identification system to cue an EO/IR sensor over vast expanses of empty ocean.

Other maritime UAVs also continue in development”not yet produced in substantial numbers but with an important future, also with different sensor needs than the primarily over-land Global Hawk, Predator and others. Most maritime UAV programs are still in mid-development, with funding to increase substantially during the next 10 years. Probably the most important program from a funding and sensors perspective, in 2010 testing continued for the U.S. Navy's Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) sensor suite, including Northrop Grumman's Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS) radar, Raytheon's MTS-B with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) for ship tracking, and an Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system. In September 2010, Northrop began work on the first Global Hawk-derived BAMS air vehicle at its Moss Point, Miss., facility. About 40 BAMS air vehicles are planned.

Tactical UAVs.
 Tactical UAV EO/IR sensors will remain inexpensive off-the-shelf systems, still procured in fairly small numbers (tens or hundreds, not thousands). In 2010, Sweden, Italy and Australia announced plans to buy AAI Corp. Shadow 200 tactical UAVs, but the total EO/IR sensor value for about 50 air vehicles will likely be less than $15 million”the cost of one Global Hawk EISS.

Mini, Micro and Nano UAVs.
The market for mini/micro/nano-UAV sensors will likely grow substantially, with sensors increasing in capability (and expense), and procurements already in the hundreds annually. In early 2010, a senior British Army officer in Afghanistan declared an epic appetite for micro UAVs, in part because enemy combatants and civilians have learned how to avoid the gaze of larger, high-altitude endurance UAVs, such as Predator, by using cover.

New Technologies
From WFOV EO/IR sensor aircraft to multispectral and hyperspectral systems, rapid advances are under way.


New WFOV Funding.
All the WFOV EO/IR sensor aircraft in service today are urgent procurements based on needs to combat improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these aircraft, including the Army's Constant Hawk and the U.S. Marine Corps' Angel Fire, are based on the manned Hawker Beechcraft KingAir and have moderate endurance and little survivability in contested airspace. The U.S. Air Force's Gorgon Stare pod, now in development, will be carried by the Reaper UAV, providing greater endurance and, if not greater survivability, at least less concern about losses. In June 2010, Sierra Nevada delivered the first four Gorgon Stare pods, with the next six to be delivered in the fall of 2011. Increment Two will add improved EO and imaging IR, greater area coverage, improved resolution, and greater storage capacity; it will be available in 2012.

In late 2009, BAE Systems' Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) sensor was flight tested aboard a Black Hawk helicopter. ARGUS-IS is built around a 1.8-gigapixel camera (made up of 368 5-megapixel video chips), with multiple video windows, to provide extreme wide-angle EO ISR. Unlike Gorgon Stare, ARGUS-IS provides day EO only.

In June 2010, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory awarded Lockheed Martin a $50 million contract to develop ARGUS-IR, with at least 65 steerable video streams, to be carried by a UAV.

Because all these programs are recent urgent developments, there's little basis for reliable forecasts. Immediate procurements have mostly ended now, and what production will come later is still uncertain. What's clear is that there will be many new programs and development opportunities. Last year's speculative Teal Group forecast assumed that funding would blossom for new formal programs of record for WFOV ISR, and now this has happened. In February 2010, fiscal year 2011 Department of Defense documents showed U.S. Air Force funding ramping up to a phenomenal $461.9 million in fiscal year 2015 for PE# 0305135F Wide-Area Airborne Surveillance. No details are available for this program, but clearly there are big WFOV plans afoot. Further evidence of the likelihood of increasing funding appeared in late 2010, when General David Petreaus requested more funding for wide-area surveillance, with capabilities to be delivered within 6-12 months. Within three weeks, Congress had reprogrammed $409 million to wide-area surveillance.


Multispectral and Hyperspectral Sensors.
Multispectral and hyperspectral reconnaissance may be the wave of the future, but development has been fairly slow during the last decade. However, production programs look considerably closer this year than last. In February 2010, the Department of Defense fiscal year 2011 budget showed development milestones for the LWIR 3-channel SPIRITT in fiscal year 2011 and the LWIR 5-channel SPIRITT in fiscal year 2012. In July 2010, U.S. Air Force officials said they had successfully located IEDs with the multispectral abilities of SYERS, something which wouldn't be effective from Global Hawk with its two-band EO/IR EISS. There has been discussion of putting SYERS on Global Hawk.

High resolution will continue to be needed, but even more important is improved software, networking and systems for discriminating smaller, moving and camouflaged targets across broad areas. Most UAV EO/IR sensors today provide only a narrow field-of-view soda straw view. As more UAVs gain laser designators, Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) will become more important.

Along with the constant need for improved data links, improved ATR and smarter sensors may be one of the next UAV sensor breakthroughs. The U.S. Army's Constant Hawk wide-angle EO system for manned ISR aircraft”using multiple EO camera apertures and stitching images together with software”and the U.S. Air Force's Gorgon Stare are two examples of this. Multispectral and hyperspectral cameras also will improve target discrimination.

Promise and Problems
The difficulties with the current generation of tactical UAVs have stemmed from under-estimations of their cost and over-estimations of their capabilities. Military organizations that became interested in UAVs during the 1990s largely assumed they were simple and cheap to operate. Although many of the early systems were elementary, most NATO armies since have added sophisticated features, including thermal imaging cameras, encrypted data transmission and optional electronic signals intelligence (ELINT), all of which add weight and cost to the designs.

In addition, the airframes on many early tactical UAVs put the accent on lightweight and low cost at the expense of durability. Early systems were viewed as expendable, and their construction led to high attrition rates, with many types not exceeding a dozen missions before requiring replacement.

Some recent examples will highlight these difficulties. In UAV operations during Operation Telic in Iraq in 2003, British forces conducted 138 Phoenix UAV sorties, losing 23 air vehicles and sustaining damage to 13 more”in other words a casualty rate of more than 25 percent. In 2004, Canada deployed a single new Crécerelle UAV system to Afghanistan, crashing two air vehicles and sidelining two more due to stress cracks and making the system unserviceable after only a few months of operation.

Although these may be extreme examples, UAV durability and reliability remains a significant hurdle. Such loss rates might have been acceptable when carrying inexpensive sensor packages, but the trend toward million dollar sensor packages has prompted armies to demand a far more durable and robust air vehicle.

Technological innovations are helping to reduce the loss rate. With the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS), inexpensive inertial platforms are becoming more common, providing a capability to recover a UAV to a predetermined location if the data-link to the ground station becomes interrupted. But the increasing sophistication of these UAV sensor packages have been making them larger and more expensive”and hence less affordable for tactical roles such as scouting for mechanized units. Instead of directly serving the small unit commander, they have been ending up as brigade or divisional assets, much like the earlier generation of UAVs. As a result, the proliferation of tactical UAVs hasn't progressed as deeply as many imagined a few years ago.

Curiously enough, other UAVs are emerging for this role. Cheap, semi-expendable mini-UAVs are enjoying a flurry of attention because they seem to offer a way around the cost dilemma posed by the more sophisticated and expensive tactical UAVs. The other attraction of mini-UAVs is that they can be operated without cumbersome air-traffic control restrictions, because they usually operate at low altitudes below the threshold of air-traffic control (ATC) rules.

Mini-UAVs and tactical UAVs have proved to be especially attractive in peace-keeping operations short of all-out war, such as recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most nations deploying troops on such missions are averse to suffering casualties. Mini- and tactical UAVs offer a partial solution. Patrol missions that formerly required a squad of infantry now can be accomplished by an unmanned aircraft, with no risk of human casualties to mines or sniper fire. UAVs are unobtrusive and can cover a wide area on a single flight, making them useful for monitoring truces, restricted areas or other objectives.

The success of UAVs in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq is likely to lead to growing interest for peacekeeping operations. One of the most nettlesome problems in peacekeeping operations is the presence of mines/IEDs. The United States is now looking at remote mine detection equipment that could be carried on a UAV. Should this prove practical, this mission alone will justify the procurement of additional UAVs.            

Editor's Note: This article was adapted by the Earth Imaging Journal staff from the Teal Group market study World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems”2011. For more information, visit the company's Web site:


A UAV for Every Need

From a technical standpoint, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market has been divided into various categories that are common in the industry. Some of these begin to blend together at the margins, but the following categories are useful in terms of assessing requirements and estimating costs.


The Nano Hummingbird could someday provide new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities in urban environments.

A UAV small enough to be held in the palm of the hand, usually weighing less than a kilogram.

The RQ-11B Raven is launched by hand, thrown into the air like a free-flight model airplane.

ScanEagle, launched autonomously via a pneumatic wedge catapult launcher, flies pre-programmed or operator-initiated missions.

Mini-UAVs: A UAV small enough to be launched by a person; typically deployed in army use at platoon or company level. A typical example is the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven.Credit – AeroVironment Small Tactical UAVs (STUAVS): A UAV between mini-UAV and TUAV in size, typically small enough to be lifted by a human, but too large to be launched by hand. Typically launched ween mini-UAV and TUAV in size, typically small enough to be lifted by a human, but too large to be launched by hand. Typically launched by a bungee or similar system and deployed at battalion level. A typical example would be the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle or the German Luna.Credit – Boeing/Insitu

The Shadow's EO/IR payload can detect targets at a 10-kilometer slant range from an altitude of 15,000 feet.

First flown in 1994, Predator was the first-ever weaponized UAV.

Tactical UAVs (TUAVS): Tactical UAVs (TUAVs): A UAV used for reconnaissance by Army formations of regiment/brigade/division size, with endurance of several hours and operating radius of 200 kilometers or less. Some typical examples are the British Phoenix, German Tucan, U.S. Shadow, French Crécerelle/Sperwer and Israeli Searcher.Credit – AAI Corp. MaleUAVs:  A Medium Altitude/Long Endurance UAV with endurance of about 24 hours and long-range capability, generally used for operational reconnaissance. Typical examples are the Predator and Eagle 1.Credit – General Atomics

The Global Hawk can survey as much as 40,000 square miles (103,600 square kilometers) of terrain a day.


A Northrop Grumman Fire Scout UAV prepares to land aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Nashville.


HALE UAVs:  A High Altitude/Long Endurance UAV with endurance of a day or more and long-range capability, generally used for strategic reconnaissance. The Global Hawk is a typical example.Credit – Northrop Grumman Navel UAVs: A tactical UAV adapted for shipboard use with a customized ground control station for shipboard operations. This doesn't include tactical UAVs or MALE UAVs operated by navies from shore bases.Credit – U.S. Navy

Two Hermes 450s were tested by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2004.



The Boeing X-45 was a concept demonstrator for a next generation of completely autonomous military aircraft.


Civil UAVs: UAVs operated by organizations other than the armed forces. This category includes government organizations and commercial organizations. Government organizations included paramilitary organizations in the U.S. sense (coast guard, state police) that may be considered military in other countries.Credit – Elbit Systems   UCACs: Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicle, a high-performance UAV designed primarily for ground attack. Tactical UAVs and MALE UAVs with secondary strike capability such as the MQ-9 Predator B aren't included in this category, but in their original platform/size category.
Credit – Boeing Integrated Defense Systems

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