Mission possible: educating buyers on the full capabilities of UAVs


The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles market has experienced rapid growth in recent years and UAV usage has had a major impact on military operations. MOD DCB features writer Paul Elliott spoke to George Duncan, Asia-Pacific Business Development Director at UMS SKELDAR, about UAVs, their capabilities and the marketplace in defence for this exciting technology.

Businesses can educate defence buyers better on the full capabilities of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) they have procured – too many companies focus on what will get them a sale, which can be a problem for buyers as there is often much more on offer to them than they realise.

This is the view of George Duncan, a former RAF officer and helicopter pilot with 6500-plus flying hours under his belt, currently in post as Asia-Pacific Business Development Director for UMS SKELDAR, the joint venture set up by Saab and UMS Aero providing the NATO Standardization Agreement (STANAG) compliant SKELDAR V-200 rotary VTOL UAV platform designed for a variety of land and naval missions operations. It is an honest assessment of how business is done in the defence marketplace.

Being a military man, capability always comes first for Mr Duncan. For him, supplying capability is about supporting mission requirements in the best way possible, and he very much sees the role of business as one of supporting mission requirements efficiently. Mr Duncan is also something of an enthusiast about UAVs and is keen to stress how much more they can be used for than they are currently. He wants to promote a greater understanding of the potential uses for UAVs, and the multiple roles they can play in supporting missions as a valuable but also cost-effective solution. In short, he wants to help buyers understand perfectly what they are buying.

If buyers don’t always understand the capabilities of the technology they are procuring, how do we change that? Education is the answer, according to Mr Duncan.

He explained: “I’ve recently been working on contracts out in South East Asia. Over there – and it’s a fair representation of what you see around the globe – military commanders are obsessed with specification: obsessed!

“There needs to be clarity. All that commanders need to focus on is their mission. If a commander tells me their mission then I can provide them with the perfect platform to suit that mission. Or I can tell them our platform cannot perform within the parameters desired, rather than go down the line of looking through rows and rows of specifications.

“Specifications are meaningless to a commander who has to achieve a mission. When you are looking at procuring UAV systems, forget the specifications; talk to the supplier about the mission. Say ‘Our mission is A, B, C, D and E; does your aircraft comply?’ As a commander all you want is data and intelligence. You don’t need to care about the shape of the UAV – all you need is quality in intelligence and data.

“We have to get commanders to concentrate on the mission, not on all the bells and whistles that we providers put out because it’s a good marketing or sales ploy. We need mission: educate them on the mission. We need the British military to become mission-obsessed, not specification-obsessed.”

The UAV market is a competitive one and creating distinctive products is always going to be difficult. When it comes to developing a unique product UAV developers now rely largely on other expert businesses that design payloads. A UAV is purely a vehicle to carry a payload and the purpose of the payload is usually to collect intelligence and data for the commander. UAVs can be improved in terms of their endurance, their maximum or minimum speeds and their operating altitudes – but it’s the experts who produce the payloads that UAV developers need partnerships with now.

Mr Duncan argues the scope of what can be done with a UAV is only just becoming apparent. The military paid for the development of UAVs for the commercial sector and their uses in the commercial sector over the next 15 years will be far greater than anything the military has achieved with them to date.

That said, UAVs have undeniably had a huge impact on defence capability – indeed, they have changed defence. Mr Duncan commented: “I remember my days as a pilot – if you had mentioned UAVs or pilotless aircraft to me then I would have looked at you as if you were talking about black magic and witchcraft, and denied there was any use of it at all in the military. Of course times change, and our perceptions change, and what we’re seeing with UAVs today is that they’re exceptional at gathering intelligence, information and data.

“Perceptions really have changed, and I think now the military see UAVs as a very effective way of augmenting their current resources and consolidating some of the information that they’re in receipt of. They are also, generally speaking, a cheaper way of gathering information.”

The military is being asked if it’s making the most financially out of the resources that it has. Mr Duncan believes great steps are being made, and there’s a lot that can be done in the short term if commanders are completely aware of the full practical capabilities of UAVs. He says use and capability are only limited by the imagination of the user. The amount of payload that can be carried on a UAV now can provide the user all manner of information. It’s an exciting time to be developing such solutions.

Mr Duncan is also an advocate of the wet leasing system, a leasing arrangement whereby one company provides UAVs, operators, maintenance and insurance to another organisation. An example of its use would be the British Army set to deploy somewhere hostile with a commercial business providing the team – all ex-military and operationally proven – who will operate the equipment. They don’t have to be in charge of the data or intelligence; they just fly the UAVs. They will do whatever the military commander tells them to do with the resource or the asset.

According to Mr Duncan wet leasing is a very short-term but nonetheless effective way of getting fantastic assets and resources into a theatre extremely quickly. He said: “I think that’s the way we all have to react and respond to the needs of the military. Our military has changed now; we have young men and women who have to react to a very dynamic global situation. We have to support them the best we can.”

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have contributed a lot to recent defence operations and it seems likely they will continue to do so for a long time to come. The market continues to grow and new platforms are always becoming available to defence buyers globally. A better military understanding of the technology and capabilities of UAVs could allow them to contribute even more to missions. It seems there is a lot still to learn about UAVs, but these lessons could have invaluable results for defence.

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