Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Spring break for the high tech: Attendees go wild for unmanned aerial vehicles

July 22, 2010
By Dick Morley

In March I received an interesting invitation. I would be treated as a VIP at the Military Air Assets Exhibition and Conference (MAASEC). This was a conference that I know nothing about. For good reason, it was the first time this conference was offered in Florida. "Well," said I, "time for spring break vacation."

I could justify the trip on a marketing basis. My speaking engagements seem to be less in the corporate direction and more in the government, education and military areas. For once, I could follow my own advice and leave the box of comfort (a.k.a. my cubicle).

Most of my life I have been involved in the technical side of electronics for space and the Department of Defense. After several decades, I wanted to see if anything came of the recommendations made long, long ago.

The US Air flight included a change in Washington. For me, it was a tight connection because I sometimes need a wheelchair. This was one of those days. Made it, but missed the Quiznos submarine sandwich. I had thought that the conference was going to be at the Hyatt Hotel, but no such luck. They did, however, have shuttle buses from the hotel to the conference centre, only a 10-minute ride away.


When I made it to the showroom floor on the first day, the first thing that hit me was that I knew none of the companies in the hundred-plus floor displays. Many of the abbreviations were unknown to me, and many of the abbreviations that I did know (PLC, SCADA) were strange to them.

The first thing I did was try to get a wheelchair. No dice. So I slowly walked down to the end of the exhibit hall to the VIP section. Comfortable seats, good drinks and decent snack food. I passed lots of UAV booths.

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was a key focus both for the speakers and the booths. The vehicles varied in size from big ones to seemingly model aircraft. A UAV is a platform, not a weapon. On this basis, the cruise missile is not a UAV. Many of the control systems in UAV and cruise missiles utilize similar software, but the definition differences are clear. This technology thrust has a continuing high-speed effort in warfare. Surveillance is a key element in any army’s portfolio.

Looking forward, there seemed to be both social and technical issues. UAVs occupy the same airspace as piloted aircraft. This is both a social and technical issue. What is the risk? The technical issue trends toward autonomous control systems.

The other issue in all pilotless vehicles is MRO – or maintenance/repair/operations. There was a subsection dedicated to MRO. Keeping Air Force vehicles flight-ready is a major issue whether the vehicles are manned or pilotless. At one time in the Middle East, only 10 percent of the helicopter vehicles were viable. Process was a key element at this conference, not technology.

On the second day I attended two keynote presentations. The first discussed approaches concerning acquisition strategies – an iron butt session. Truly, because of my lack of knowledge and the terrible slides, I was bored out of my mind. The person making it was a nice guy and the rest of the audience appreciated the talk. My bad.

The second keynote was more up my alley. It was entitled "Advances in Propulsion for Future Air Force Capabilities". The keynoter discussed technology using turbine engines and alternative fuels. Batteries and fuel cells continue to be examined.  There was some discussion regarding hypersonic capability – an excellent talk. The best part was an informal discussion about atomic power, ion drives, planes that fly into low orbit space and bases that are built the same way as aircraft carriers – totally self-sufficient except for food.

On the return flight, I went from Jacksonville to Philadelphia, then on to Manchester, New Hampshire. We flew over the flooding. I was tired but satisfied. My wife picked me up and at the airport we had a fish sandwich at Mickey D’s. The marketing was valuable and I met very many pleasant and serious people. Good contacts and, for a change, the attendees were high tech. One of my surprises was the UAV activity.

I spent two days out of the box and it was a great learning experience.

Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. Email him at

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