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Defense cuts have forced commanders at Southern California’s Naval Base Ventura County to idle planes and cancel troop deployments, but you’d never know it from looking at nearby defense contractor Northrup Grumman: Its stock price has risen 9 percent in less than a month, buoyed by brisk sales of drones such as the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which will be deployed at the base this summer.
Indeed, lean times in the public sector appear to be helping drone manufacturers, as they pitch unmanned aircraft as cheaper replacements for a wide range of activities involving human labor and/or dangerous conditions. “We can capitalize on this budget-constrained environment to keep this development going,” explained Janis Pamiljans, Northrup Grumman’s head of unmanned air systems.
Pamiljans was addressing a who’s who of manufacturers, hobbyists, and public officials who showed up at the naval base last week during a conference on civilian applications of drones (the industry calls them “unmanned aerial vehicles”), which could constitute a $90 billion market within a decade—or so says the industry’s trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “We are not darkening the skies yet,” said Richard Christiansen, the vice-president of the NASA contractor Sierra Lobo Inc., “but we are poised.”