Ross Wilkers

COMPANIES

FLIR transformation fuses unmanned platforms & 'intelligent solutions'

Best known for making thermal imagery and sensor technologies, FLIR Systems has been on a journey over the past three years to transform its government and defense business with unmanned systems as a core component of that thrust.

But the path for FLIR has been about more than simply identifying a missing piece in the portfolio and rounding those out through acquisitions, although they have bought three unmanned platform makers in the last three years.

The strategy at a broad level focusing on opportunities with common applicability across the entire FLIR customer base, both government and commercial.

It also means being able to bring customers not just a physical product but also “intelligent solutions” embedded in, as FLIR’s government and defense president David Ray recently told me.

“We want to move to this notion of… taking those products and leveraging AI and analytics and those types of capabilities to really make them smarter, to allow (for) decisions to be made closer to the battlefield” Ray said.

“And then ultimately get to this point of intelligence solutions, which takes our sensing capability and couples it with the platforms and command-and-control wrapped, to deliver full-term solutions,” he said.

Appointed in December 2017, Ray said he joined FLIR to help implement that vision CEO Jim Cannon has emphasized since he became chief executive five months prior.

FLIR’s most recent movement in its transformation was this year’s opening of a second corporate headquarters in Arlington, Virginia to complement their other main hub in Wilsonville, Oregon.

That office is less than a mile from the Pentagon. Ray said the location also puts FLIR in proximity to the State and Commerce departments, which is key for its international business. The office is also closer to other industry partners in the aerospace-and-defense sector, to which FLIR often supplies sensors as a subcontractor.

The government and defense business posted $663 million in revenue last year or 37 percent of FLIR’s $1.8 billion in total sales.

FLIR’s acquisition strategy has centered on unmanned given that domain’s fusion of both physical and digital technologies. Deal number one came in 2016 when FLIR bought small unmanned aerial system maker Prox Dynamics, which was followed by this year’s buys of larger UAS company Aeryon Labs and unmanned ground vehicle firm Endeavor Robotics.

A common thread in all three was gaining more than just added manufacturing capacity. As Ray pointed out, those companies were also hard at work on developing the underlying technologies like control software to make the vehicles more than just a mechanical offering.

“You’ve got to have a platform: something to carry it, something to go sense it, command and control to prosecute and the ability to communicate. If you have those four elements, you’re delivering a solution to the customer,” Ray said.

That is what FLIR found in Endeavor and Aeryon as both have developed controllers for a single user to operate multiple unmanned vehicles at once. Ray said this is intended as a departure from a “one-to-one” relationship between user and platform.

“In essence, UAVs and UGVS… they have control stations, they have a platform, they have sensors and they have the ability to build a command and control system between the two and communicate to other platforms.”

From the perspective of government and defense, Ray tied FLIR’s strategy to emerging concepts like manned-unmanned teaming and the networked soldier that can get information quickly in the battlefield from sensors and platforms alike.

Endeavor was also attractive to FLIR because of an emphasis on pursuits of longer-term programs of record the Army is working through.

There was one early setback when QinetiQ North America won the so-called “Common Robotic Systems-Individual” competition earlier this year to build ground robots less than 25 pounds.

But Endeavor already does have the Army “Medium Transportable Robotic System” program to build medium-weight robots for finding explosives and other hazards in the field. And trials are ongoing for the “Common Robotic Systems-Heavy” program to build robots between 500 and 1,000 pounds.

Programs like these are evidence to Ray that FLIR is catching the unmanned ground market wave in its “early ramp.”

“If we do what we’re supposed to do, now we have an opportunity to integrate air and ground from an unmanned perspective,” Ray said. “Leveraging the power of AI and analytics, leveraging the sensors that we build so that we can communicate and perform missions between air assets and ground assets that reduce time to mission and also allow for enhanced performance.”

Those technologies by themselves certainly have individual value. But for FLIR, Ray sees that synergy as “one plus one equals five.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also find and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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