Expert Interview Series: Bob Schmidt of UAV Propulsion Tech On How Drones Are Being Used Today

Bob Schmidt is president/founder of UAV Propulsion Tech, a U.S. company that markets German, Canadian, Swedish, and Australian consumer off-the-shelf (COTs) and custom propulsion, autopilot, servo/actuator, parachute, gyro stabilized EO/IR gimbal systems, and thermal imager solutions. Bob sat down with us to give us a rundown on the state of UAV technology and the most popular applications for drones today.

Tell us about your background. What attracted you to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles?

I am an engineer with over thirty years’ experience in the design, management, and sale of automotive, powersport, and military solutions. I started in the automotive business in Michigan working for fuel system suppliers TI Automotive and SiemensVDO developing fuel pump solutions.

In 2000, I started working for Orbital Australia as the head of U.S. business development. At that time, Orbital was working with a number of global automotive companies on direct injection technology to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy. In 2003, Orbital started working with Hirth Motors of Germany to apply their direct injection technology to their sport aviation engines in order to enable spark ignition operation on heavy fuel to support NATO’s one-fuel policy. That was my first experience working in the world of UAVs.

In 2007, I went from Orbital employee to contractor and started a business to represent other non-U.S. companies that had advanced UAV technology which they wanted to market to US customers. So I started with Orbital and Hirth to market their propulsion systems, then added Volz servos, Skygraphics rescue/recovery parachutes, MicroPilot autopilots, and this year just added DST Control’s gyro-stabilized EO/IR gimbals.

I like how fast technology is advancing in the UAV market between defense and commercial applications. It is this advanced technology and interesting aircraft solutions that attracted me to this market.

UAVs are increasingly being used for aerial photography or video recording. What are some of the industries that are embracing this particular application?

There are a number of industries embracing UAVs.

  • Defense companies for surveillance. Sometimes these systems are outfitted with weapons or with laser designators to take out targets.
  • Real estate to help market properties.
  • Construction for monitoring progress.
  • Utilities and pipelines for monitoring any issues and also for maintenance.
  • Agriculture for plant health monitoring and more exact application of nutrients or water.
  • Sporting events for a new customer viewing experience (like golf, skiing, etc.).
  • Movie production to do things helicopters typically have done in the past.
  • Border security.
  • Delivery service (medical/packages and maybe even people in the future).
  • Entertainment (lighting shows) and drone racing.
  • Police for accident investigation or surveillance.
  • Insurance for property damage (fire/tornado/flooding/etc.).
  • Disaster response.

When many Americans think of military UAVs, the first image that comes to mind is a Mideast drone strike on terrorists. What other military uses do UAVs have?

The biggest military use is ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance). This is our military’s eye in the sky to keep our troops safe or to gather intelligence on certain areas.

What is your favorite new UAV technology that will have a significant impact on the UAV industry?

My favorite new technology is the advancements being made on commercial multi-copters to extend range. These technologies include fuel cells and hybrid systems where you have an electric generator on a piston engine to supply electrical power to the DC motors. Also, UAV payloads are becoming more advanced and smaller/lighter (sometimes called low SWaP – Size/weight/ power).

Though it’s still a relatively young industry, are you starting to hear about UAV accidents and/or lawsuits based on improper operation or technical malfunctions of UAVs?

I have heard of accidents, but they are typically related more to the hobby/commercial multi-copter products that fall out of the sky and sometimes hit someone. Manufacturers of UAV products have to have product liability insurance that is based on the number of units produced and potential risk to people and property. This is becoming critical since more UAVs are starting to fly in commercial airspace.

Do you have any predictions about UAV technology or the proliferation of UAVs in the future?

I think the commercial industry is going to see great expansion which will make UAVs for this industry more advanced and less expensive. In the future, the advancement of these commercial solutions might start being applied in the defense industry to offer lower cost ISR solutions. Defense applications will also become more advanced, especially on the larger unmanned weapon systems and the very small systems that can fly inside a building unnoticed.

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