Teal Group, a Fairfax market analysis firm, estimates that nearly $100 billion will be spent globally on drones between now and 2019.
“The needs for [unmanned aerial vehicles] are unsatisfied,” said Phil Finnegan, Teal Group’s director of corporate analysis. “The military wants a lot more. Worldwide you have very limited adoption of UAVs, but foreign militaries have seen the success in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they want them.”
The rise of drones has been a small boon for Southern California, where the aerospace industry has contracted painfully in the past two decades. About 10,000 state residents are directly employed in the drone sector. And for national security reasons, much of the supply chain is kept onshore, generating jobs among contractors and subcontractors.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes the Predator and the next-generation Reaper drone, is in Poway, north of San Diego. AeroVironment, which makes an array of backpackable mini-drones, such as the Raven and the Wasp, is in Simi Valley.
Northrop Grumman is testing the X-47B, a carrier-based fighter drone, for the Navy in Palmdale. The RQ-170, the stealth drone manufactured by Lockheed Martin and used by the military and the CIA, is believed to have emerged from the company’s classified facility, the Skunk Works, also in Palmdale, near Edwards Air Force Base.
The Gossamer Condor
In the mid-1970s, Paul MacCready, an aeronautical engineer and the first American to become a world gliding champion, needed cash fast to cover a bad loan he had guaranteed. MacCready, the founder of AeroVironment, and a team of engineers at the company decided to chase the Kremer Prize, the reward for besting a challenge that had gone unmet for 20 years: a human-powered aircraft capable of flying a figure eight around two markers half a mile apart. In 1977, MacCready’s Gossamer Condor, piloted by Bryan Allen, took the prize, then worth about $100,000. Two years, later Allen flew another version of the bird across the English Channel.
AeroVironment, which consulted on air quality, began a sideline in aviation firsts.
“You had these incredibly talented people attracted to something this cool,” Conver said. “All the airplanes were extraordinarily light. All were focused on things that hadn’t been done before.”
The group eventually flew a solar-powered craft from Paris to England, built a working model of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine and created a flying model of a pterodactyl.