Small business, small drone - $100 billion defense market opportunity

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The annual four-day Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) - a collaboration between U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the National Defense Industry Association – gives companies large and small the chance to get their innovations in front of US Special Operations.

Held this week in Florida, more than 400 companies from around the states, and the world, showed up to showcase their advances and compete for some of those billions that SOCOM spends each year. Nearly 1000 booths were jam-packed with options for SOF teams looking for new tech advantages they can use against adversaries.

Growing Demand in Defense for Drones

Drones were heavily showcased throughout the exhibition, reflecting the fact that demand continues to be high in defense. Between now and 2020, Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) has forecasted a $100 billion market opportunity for drones.

A wide range of companies were out vying to provide solutions for special operations. Titans like Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), BAE Systems, General Dynamics (NYSE:GD), Raytheon (NYSE:RTN), Boeing (NYSE:BA), Bell, L3 Technologies (NYSE:LLL), Textron (NYSE:TXT), Airbus, Aurora Flight Sciences, QintetiQ, Rolls Royce, Honeywell (NYSE:HON), Leidos (NYSE:LDOS) and Polaris (NYSE:PII) took part.

But many smaller companies are out in full force as well. In fact, there was also an Innovation Showcase this year designed to give 30 entrepreneurs and start-up companies an opportunity to introduce their innovations to SOF customers too.

Small size, but big hit

The best solutions for U.S. Special Operations requirements do not necessarily come from big companies.

Hoverfly’s LiveSky generated a lot of attention and this is one of those smaller companies that has already proven to be a success story. The Army has bought a handful of these small drones and the Navy has already bought four.

Beyond the military, the intelligence community and first responders have been early adopters. New York Fire Department, very often at the forefront in the fire community in leveraging advances, has purchased four as well.

What is it?

LiveSky provides users with instant aerial imagery from up to 200 feet above where it is launched.

From the air, it provides persistent broadcast quality video, 10-times optical zoom and optional thermal imagery. Unlike other small drones that may have an endurance of mere hours, LiveSky can stay in the air indefinitely with a power-tether and video-over-tether technology.

How could it be used?

Real-time imagery can be a key advantage to protecting the force.

The HoverFly can fly over a forward operating base to provide eyes in the sky to spot threats. It can also be used in scenarios like a team moving through a heavily wooded area or urban terrain. The team can fly hoverfly from a vehicle and see everything around them.

It can even be used to prevent enemy drones from sneaking up on US forces.

HoverFly CEO Rob Topping said “Our military and first-responder customers can now fly all sorts of interesting payloads for ISR and communications."

For national security, the drones can also be used to monitor events and emergencies. For example, in the event of an earthquake the HoverFly can generate large areas of thermal imagery to help teams locate and rescue survivors trapped in building and under rubble.

The Small Business Advantage for Military Needs

Topping noted how being small can provide crucial advantages: “I absolutely love the speed at which we are innovating and creating airborne solutions that protect the lives of our customers…it reminds me of the old days at Westar when we moved a breakneck speed to help our customers.”

“I left McDonnell Douglas in the late 80’s when my boss told me I needed to have more tolerance for slow moving decisions” he added.

Topping continued “After we sold Westar to QinetiQ, I became President and COO of QinetiQ North America and we grew to 5400 employees and $1.2B in revenue in the US…that was a great experience….but at a certain size, it’s hard to be quick and it’s natural for organizations that grow large to lose agility and become overly process driven.”