Hoping to capitalize on an imagined future in which robots are on the front lines of warfare, defense contractors are making new investments in small, portable drone systems that can surveil enemy territory or even neutralize targets.
In March, an Oregon-based thermal imaging company, FLIR Systems, opened a new East Coast headquarters less than a mile from the Pentagon, which it hopes will serve as the core of a defense business focused on unmanned systems. And on May 7, a pair of California-based technology companies, AeroVironment and Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, announced they will team up to develop a system of small, unmanned drones that can be launched and controlled from a larger drone.
Jim Cannon, president and chief executive of FLIR, described the new Northern Virginia office as the culmination of a long-planned evolution beyond the company's roots in thermal imaging and sensing. His company now wants to refocus its efforts on the military technology market.
It is acquiring the ownership rights to robotic and unmanned systems that the U.S. military is already buying in the thousands, and trying to forge new contacts with Pentagon leadership as military agencies seek to modernize their operations.
"It's important that we get a center of gravity around the Washington area," Cannon said. "We wanted to show our customers that they are at the center of our strategy, and moving to D.C. is a great way to do that."
The new Northern Virginia presence is underpinned by a series of acquisitions in unmanned military technology. In late January, it spent $200 million to acquire Aeryon Labs, a Canadian company that makes a small surveillance drone called "SkyRanger." The drone is designed to be carried in a rucksack and used for used for surveillance and controlled through a handheld tablet.
In 2015, FLIR bought a Norwegian company called Prox Dynamics, which makes a quiet, hand-sized surveillance drone it calls the Black Hornet.
The SkyRanger drones are meant to be operated in hard-to-reach, austere areas where higher flying drones might have poor visibility. Aeryon vice president of product management David Proulx said it has already been put to use by deployed military forces.
Proulx says the company will differentiate itself by finding new ways to orchestrate the drones into complex military operations.
"When we started the business 20 years ago the idea of a camera flying on a small quadcopter was quite advanced," Proulx said. "Now the idea of a flying camera is commoditized. Our customers need a platform that can adapt and change."
FLIR further built out its unmanned systems profile in early February when it bought Endeavor Robotics, which makes small ground-based robots that the Army has used for years to defuse roadside bombs. Endeavor Robotics was most recently owned by the private equity firm Arlington Capital Partners. Before that, it was a unit of iRobot, best-known as the manufacturer of the Roomba.
Endeavor Robotics reports that more than 7,000 of its bomb-defusing robots have been deployed by the U.S. military. The company recently lost to QinetiQ, another military robotics manufacturer, in an Army competition for small ground-based robots. And it is the primary contractor on a program to develop robotic combat vehicles for the Army.
While terms of the new "partnership" between Kratos and AeroVironment were not disclosed, a release jointly published by the two companies described a collaborative project designed to "demonstrate the ability to launch, communicate with, and control a small, tube-launched loitering aircraft from a larger runway-independent unmanned aircraft."
Under the new collaboration, AeroVironment would be responsible for coordinating the smaller surveillance drones and relaying useful information back to a "mothership" drone controlled by Kratos.
While Kratos already holds large contracts for "target" drones the military uses for target practice, it is also working on self-piloting jets. Earlier this year, it completed its first test-flight for the XQ-58A Valkyrie, a fully-unmanned fighter jet that can fly at "high-subsonic" speeds. It also has a foothold in advanced research and development programs related to swarming attack drones.
They are betting that the U.S. military will become more reliant on robots as it works to build artificial intelligence into its operations.
"What you see is a greater reliance on robots on the battlefield," Endeavor Robotics CEO Sean Bielat said in a recent interview. "They're now a core part of the functionality of the units that use them, whereas before it was just something you might use once or twice. Now they're used day in, day out, and as units become more reliant on and confident in their robots, they're going to want more of them and more capabilities."
This article was written by Aaron Gregg, a reporter for The Washington Post.