The Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. has been invaded by drones this week. Only, don't call them drones, warns the United States' main robot-mongering group and convention host, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). These machines are smarter, more agile -- and in some cases, deadlier -- than the relatively tame machines that now crowd battlefields around the planet.
There were plenty of humans at the AUVSI show, too. In addition to a plethora of defense contractors, there were representatives from states urging drone makers to invest there, even companies marketing their drones for benign jobs like filmmaking and agricultural work. Still, the convention had the unmistakable feel of defense expo. (And it wasn't just the rockets, machine guns, infrared cameras, camouflage, and uniformed military officials from around the globe eyeing the latest in robo-weaponry.) There were also the usual coterie of overweight Pentagon contractors in boxy suits; show booths adorned with slogans like "Always Fight For Freedom"; and of course, plenty of drones designed to hunt and kill.
If anything was the theme of this conference, it was figuring out how to make drones able to operate on their own among humans. More than 20 of the panel discussions at the conference dealt with making drones autonomous and able to safely navigate skies already crowded with manned aircraft.
And as drones become increasingly important -- and increasingly common -- in our society, they've become more contentious, too. At this week's AUVSI was a security presence yours truly hasn't seen at any of the dozens of defense industry trade shows he's been to over the years. Security guards searched all bags before anyone could enter the show floor; D.C. police officers were stationed in panel discussions. Nevertheless, Code Pink managed to stage a "die-in" on the convention center steps and a protester interrupted a Tuesday morning speech by Army Lt. Gen. James Barclay with shouts of: "Shame on you AUVSI!" and "The blood of Pakistani children is on your hands, the blood of Yemeni children is on your hands!"
Well, at least she didn't call them drones.
What follows are some of the highlights from the show floor.
Above, Boeing displays a model of the unmanned version of its famous Little Bird attack chopper. The AH-6X, as the unmanned version is known, is capable of carrying rockets, guns, and various sensors.
HDT's Protector (seen above) can carry troops' gear on top of it while the plow on its front thrashes the ground with heavy chains in an effort to detonate hidden bombs long before foot soldiers get near them. Protector's operators can control the vehicle from up to 1,300 feet away as it clears a safe path for infantry.
This photo captures just a section of the massive show floor at the AUVSI's 2013 conference in Washington.
Lockheed Martin shows off its tiny, carbon-fiber surveillance copter. The five-pound quadcopter can stay aloft for up to 45 minutes and comes with an infrared camera as well as a laser target designator. And you thought the quadcopter you bought online was cool.
Lockheed displays a model against a wall-sized drawing of its bid to build the U.S. Navy's first stealth, strike, and surveillance drone (part of a program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS). It's not surprising that Lockheed's UCLASS bid, dubbed the Sea Ghost, bears a strong resemblance to the company's top secret RQ-170 Sentinel drone that prowls Middle Eastern and South Asian skies on behalf of the U.S. Air Force. (An RQ-170 was famously captured by Iran when one crashed there in late 2011.)
Talk about hotheads. One of the many infrared camera displays found throughout the exhibition hall captures show attendees.
The show isn't just about fancy airframes, drones need engines too. Pratt & Whitney Canada features a cutout of a PW300 jet engine, commonly found on business jets. The concept art behind the engine display suggests it could be used for powering a stealthy drone.
In case you need a reminder that this was largely a military trade show plying deadly wares, Lockheed Martin's booth features this little wing dripping with guided rockets and missiles.
This placard says it all. The military and drone community hates it when drones are called drones. Call 'em Remotely Piloted Vehicles, Unmanned Aerial Systems, anything but a drone, they subtly remind attendees.
This deadly little airplane is Boeing's Dominator. The 48-inch long drone has folding wings so it can be launched from a canister on the ground, on an airplane, or even from a submarine. Once airborne, the Dominator can fly for 14 to 24 hours hunting down targets. Once it finds them, its operators can either call in backup or tell the tiny drone to drop those little cylinders you see at the back of the aircraft. Those are bombs.
Textron's tiny BattleHawk is an example of drones made to be carried in a soldier's backpack and thrown into the sky. Once aloft, it uses its miniscule cameras to beam information on potential enemies back to the ground troops.
Another reminder that these robots are designed to kill comes from QinetiQ's MAARS.
This ground robot is described by its maker as the "first fully modular ground robot system capable of providing force escalation options from non-lethal to lethal for a measured response to combat situations." As the photo above shows, the robot is armed with grenade launchers and a very lethal machine gun.
Kigre Lasers tries to invoke World War II nostalgia to sell some very 21st Century technology. As one might expect, the show has more men attending than women. Keep it classy.
A show attendee operates an undersea robot in a giant water tank on the show floor.
The Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft, or SARA, was a big hit at the show. Based on a full-size S-76 chopper, SARA is being used to test out the Connecticut-based company's Matrix technology, meant to allow the chopper to fly on its own (with human supervision). Autonomous robot technology is a huge theme of the conference. Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon's top drone buyer, quipped that whenever he tells people at the Federal Aviation Administration that, in 10 years, the military will have one operator controlling multiple drones with such technology, "they freak out."
A representative from Austrian drone-builder Schiebel pitches his products to an officer from a Middle Eastern military. Earlier this year, a Schiebel Camcopter S-100 (like the one above) crashed in Somalia. No one claimed ownership of the drone, though the Pentagon acknowledged that one of its drones went down in Somalia at the same time pictures of the crashed Camcopter surfaced.
Lockheed also has one of its Squad Mission Support Systems (SMSS) on hand. The SMSS is basically a robot pack mule that can use its camera to identify and follow a designated infantryman as it hauls a squad's gear around on patrol. The Army has tested the robo-jeeps in Afghanistan.
Neany shows off its remote-controlled boat armed with a 7.62 caliber machine gun and an infrared camera. Militaries around the globe are looking at small, armed drone boats to do everything from patrolling harbors to defending larger ships against swarms of attacking speedboats.
Kairos displays a kit that allows users to convert a Ford-150 pickup truck into, well, a remote-controlled pickup truck.
Northrop Grumman wastes no chance to remind show attendees that its X-47B stealth drone made history this summer by landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier. The X-47B is a test jet meant to prove that it's possible to operate a stealthy, fighter-size unmanned jet from a crowded aircraft carrier, paving the way for the Navy's UCLASS stealth, strike, and spy drone program.