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23 February 2021

UAV Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Sensors - Part 3

Author: Dr. David L. Rockwell, Drawn From: Military Electronics Briefing

The largest market in our ten-year UAV EO/IR forecast will be for UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) and the greatest growth will be for small UAVs, admittedly from low levels today and with few program of record funding lines in unclassified DoD documents. We see development and production of increasingly sophisticated sensors for smaller tactical and mini/nano-UAVs, with a continuing “trickle down” of large-UAV sensor capabilities to small UAVs. We forecast Combat UCAVs as the other strong growth market, though these UAVs will be large tactical or endurance systems. Both of these markets again rely on speculative new programs to avoid a flat or decreasing market following the end of massive small-UAV purchases for wars in Asia over the past decade, and public cancellation of several major planned stealth UAV programs – the USAF UCAV and MQ-X, and most recently the Navy UCAS-D/UCLASS (now replaced by the tanker-only MQ-25A CBARS).

UCAVs will require manned aircraft-equivalent sensors (or more accurately, man-replacement) and extreme high-end capability, while mini/nano-UAVs will focus on extreme miniaturization and a fair amount of basic scientific/materials research.

Teal Group forecasts the numbers of mini/nano-UAV sensors procured this decade will be in the thousands annually – similar to numbers a decade ago for Asian wars. Several years ago, the AFRL expected tiny UAVs the size of a sparrow could fly by about 2015, but this size UAV was already in military service with the United Kingdom (UK) by 2012 – and in the service of 19 NATO-allied militaries by 2016. The Air Force has declared it wants to have swarms of UAVs no larger than dragonflies by 2030; we suspect this date will also move forward.

To give support to our large forecast numbers, more than 40,000 FLIR Systems, Inc. Photon 320 uncooled IR cameras were reportedly produced for small UAVs over the past decade or so. The US Army procured more than 15,000 RQ-11 Raven Mini-UAVs.

But now that mini/nano-sensors have become much more sophisticated – gimbaled, multi-spectral EO/IR systems – unit costs have shot up almost to tactical UAV sensor levels. AeroVironment’s much higher-capability, gimbaled Mantis i23 EO/IR sensor upgrade for the Raven originally cost between $30,000 and $48,000, budgeted at $66,000 per UAV by the US Army in FY15. The more recent, even more capable i45 is likely even more expensive. Our production forecast is for 3,500 Mini-UAV sensors and 2,400 Nano-UAV sensors in 2023 – dwarfing tactical UAV sensor production rates and likely worth more than $300 million. Note, however, that two years ago we lowered our forecast average unit cost amounts somewhat for these 6,000 annual sensors.... The US will still buy top-dollar sensors, the prices of which will likely continue to rise. But a substantial proportion of these 6,000 sensors will remain less-expensive, lower capability systems. We have factored this split into our forecasts. On the other hand, there is no recent tradition of buying second-rate systems just to save money, at least for the U.S. services. Our speculative forecast total of $382 million for Mini/Nano-UAV sensors in FY26 could easily prove conservative – in 2017, our forecast was for $455 million in FY26....

About the Author

Dr. David L. Rockwell

Dr. David L. Rockwell

Dr. David L. Rockwell has been Senior Analyst, Electronics at Teal Group since 1995, where he is editor of Teal's Military Electronics Briefing (MEB) as well as co-author of Teal's annual World Military Unmanned Aerial Systems: Market Profile and Forecast. He also contributes regular monthly military electronics News Briefs to the Teal Group website.

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