At this year's Unmanned Systems 2015 in Atlanta, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) offered a plethora of things for the thousands of industry stakeholders in attendance.
Following a rousing kickoff from 3DR's Colin Guinn – complete with a ‘Turn Down for What’ dance number – U.S. Rep. Frank Lobiondo, R-N.J., was one of the speakers to take the stage at Wednesday morning’s opening session, where he expressed some of his frustration with the pace of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry in the U.S.
Because of regulation, Lobiondo explained, companies are left with no choice but to take operations outside of the country and, thus, bring jobs overseas instead of here in the U.S. He then referred to this simply as “insanity.”
The only way to move the unmanned industry forward, he said, is to “do it collectively.” The industry needs to work with Congress so that Congress focuses more on the good side of drones, rather than just the privacy and safety concerns attached to the technology, he explained.
The mitigation of these concerns was highlighted in a “Managing the Air” panel at Drone Comm, a Light Reading-sponsored event held concurrently at the show. Jonathan Evans, CEO of Skyward, compared drones without an air traffic control system to cell phones without a network to join.
“We need to authenticate and make known what is in the air,” he said.
Parimal Kopardekar, project and principal investigator of UAS traffic management (UTM) at the NASA Ames Research Center, noted that “tracking [UAS] is essential not just now but in the future.” Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has predicted that 7,500 UAS weighing fewer than 55 pounds will be in operation by 2018 in the U.S. alone, noted panel moderator Dan Jones, mobile editor of Light Reading.
There are “layers of this sophisticated system,” Kopardekar said, and Evans added that an “awareness level is the very first step” in creating this monitoring system. Simply put, we first and foremost need to know where all UAS are when they’re in operation, explained Tyler Collins, director of business development and PrecisionHawk.
And, in 10 years’ time, a UTM will be completely interwoven into all UAS operations, which will then essentially become “boring” as a result of the incident-free technology, which “you won’t think twice” about seeing every day, Evans said. Collins agreed with this level of “boredom”: Seeing drones, once they are all controlled safely through a reliable UTM, will become second nature, he said.
Just a few hours prior to this panel, PrecisionHawk was a part of an FAA announcement to address further UAS integration into national airspace. Through the FAA’s new Pathfinder Program, the agency will work with PrecisionHawk, CNN and BNSF Railroad to research UAS operations that had not been prescribed in the FAA’s proposed rules for small UAS. This includes operations of beyond visual-line-of-sight (VLOS) and extended VLOS, as well as in populated/urban areas. PrecisionHawk, through the new partnership, will also be further testing its Low Altitude Tracking & Avoidance System (LATAS).
An additional FAA announcement was the introduction of the agency’s new smartphone app, B4UFLY, which complements the Know Before You Fly initiative. This app, said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at the press conference, is “the latest action the FAA has taken to encourage the responsible use of unmanned aircraft.”
The show floor, which seemed to stretch infinitely with exhibitors, was dispersed with commercial and civil UAS companies, some of which were showcasing their brand-new drones.
senseFly, for example, did a few demonstrations of its eXom mapping/inspection UAS, which had just been made available for pre-order and will ship to operators this summer. The resistance and bounce-back ability of the 3.7-lb. (including payload) quadcopter was shown in a demo where senseFly used a boxing glove to disrupt the path of the aircraft, which was unscathed by the force from any direction.
At the 3D Robotics kiosk was the just released Solo drone. What 3DR refers to as “the world’s first smart drone” will be in U.S. stores in just a couple weeks.
Airware, which only a few weeks ago revealed its Aerial Information Platform, displayed Drone America’s DAx8 – a massive multi-rotor UAS that sported the “Powered by Airware” stamp, marking Drone America’s integration with the brand-new operating system.
Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned helicopter and the Indago UAS, which was introduced to the market last year, were also on display at the show and mark the company’s continued reach into the commercial market. The two aircraft have been used for fire-fighting testing with the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance at the New York UAS test range, and the Indago aircraft is part of a recent Lockheed partnership with Project Lifesaver International and Loen Engineering Inc. for first-response missions.
CyPhy Works CEO Helen Greiner was also making the rounds with her company’s first consumer drone, the LVL 1. On the second day of the show, CyPhy Works had more than halfway reached its Kickstarter funding goal for the aircraft – only one day after the crowdfunding launch. Two days after that, it reached and surpassed the goal. This week, Greiner, with the LVL 1, made her way to the White House for a meeting with fellow entrepreneurs.
What AUVSI itself had in store at the show included an announcement that it is giving a makeover to the annual event that made all aforementioned happenings possible: The Unmanned Systems show will now be “Xponential,” held next May in New Orleans. In a release, AUVSI says it “will be working to expand the event offerings to bring a new level of community to the growing industry it serves.”
Considering the growth of the commercial UAS sector from Unmanned Systems 2014 to 2015 (take the rapidly expanding number of Section 333 exemptions in just the past few months, for example), it’s intriguing to wonder what AUVSI and other stakeholders will bring to the table for Xponential – and where the commercial UAS industry as a whole will be in a year’s time.