The Commercial UAV Expo Report from Dronin' On 11.05.16
Opening Panel – L to R Chris Anderson, Bob Young, Jonathan Downey, Robbie Hood, Mark Bathrick, Anil Nanduri

Hi all –

Hot off the show floor in Las Vegas, here is the Commercial UAV Expo report. Hats off to Lisa Murray, Jeremiah Karpowicz and Team Divcom for a great event. Some 2,000 turned up from over 100 countries. The show floor was jammed with 130 companies. Lisa announced that in June 2017 an EU version of Commercial UAV Expo will debut in Brussels. All solid indicators that our industry is growing.

Welcome to all of you who I met. And thank you to the many readers who took the time to seek me out and say hello.

A number of presenters offered up comparisons to 2015 with comments like last year it was about flying machines, this year it’s about doing useful work. And added one speaker, next year it will be about making some money. The emphasis on getting things done was particularly evident in the rich sessions that presented an exciting mix of new and familiar faces.

From my perspective, there were two big emphases – safety and privacy – both music to my ears. The safety piece reflects the ever increasing presence of people with aviation and military backgrounds in the most senior positions in government and industry. We’ll get to the details, but they are bringing training and risk management practices to their new roles. One manifestation – most discussions were about aircraft – not drones. Because to aviators, unmanned craft is simply a subset of the larger aviation industry.

At the same time. the vision of a world filled with autonomous drones, processing on the edge using machine learning, AI and other concepts to identify problems without human intervention is clearly the future. In fact, some people are already talking about autonomous repairs.

Mark Bathrick, the Director of the Office of Aviation Services for the Department of Interior was the keynote speaker and did a great job framing the issues in his presentation Four Must-Have Competencies for Commercial UAV Success. Want to guess? Aviation. Privacy. Security. Culture. His point is that any organization conducting operations in this space must be prepared for the responsibilities and liabilities associated with aviation.  As Mark, who was a USN test pilot and squadron commander points out

“The closer you are to the ground, the less time you have to react.”

I’d never heard it put like that before. With the ever-increasing emphasis on ease-of-use and easy-to-fly, it is not something that the industry spends enough time talking about. Which I think is a disservice. The people I spoke with who spend a lot of time in the field with drones, all have something to say about how little time there is to react when an operator loses a comm link or has some other kind of failure. And how much training it takes to diagnose the problem and respond in one or two seconds.

Jonathan Downey, the CEO of Airware opened with a familiar message. “Companies that cannot digitize will be disrupted.”  As Exhibit A, Jonathan has focused his company on the construction industry where the average project takes 20% longer to deliver than scheduled and comes in 80% over budget. Their vision is inspiring “We believe that an accurate view of the world empowers our customer to make it a better place.”

Chris Anderson who now has 3DR squarely focused on construction noted that the key to disruption is picking industries that are “big, broken and fixable.”

Anil Nanduri, the General Manager of the UAV segment at Intel spent a lot of his time talking about the need for precision. I didn’t spend a ton of time on the show floor but I think that Intel has a game changer in the Falcon 8+ that Topcon will be bringing to the US market. One look and you know that this is a robust piece of kit.

Anil also announced the acquisition of MaVinci, a German fixed wing manufacturer. One could argue that it is harder to impact the more mature fixed-wing market. But having both is going to give the channel an enormous advantage. Now it’s on Topcon to get it right. As for Yuneec –as far as I can tell they remain in a kind of no man’s land – one Intel booth rep said it was for people who want to take pictures.

On Day 2 I was totally blown away by John Rogers, the CEO and co-founder of Local Motors. Rogers, an eloquent speaker spoke passionately about the twin themes of co-creation and micro-manufacturing, using the Zelator-28 cargo drone they developed with Airbus as a proof point. Their mission statement is “We exist to shape the future.” Their process has “The unrivaled capacity to make the improbable come to life.” This man has a unique vision – go hear him when you get the opportunity.

The presenters for the Risk Management for Large Enterprises session extended Mark Bathrick’s opening keynote. Roland Beason, the General Counsel for Talon Aerolytics discussed the systemic causes of accidents. An accident may be the result of an individual lack of skill, but it can also be a leader who fails to enforce standards, training that fails to provide essential skills or support elements that fail to provide essential services. He then shared the process that he has developed for Talon to mitigate risk based on, you guessed it, his military training.

David Proulx, the VP, Marketing and Product Management at Aeryon Labs made the value of fleet management crystal clear. “To maximize aircraft availability and uptime, enabling consistent, predictable and compliant operations.” The bottom line being that:

“Capabilities are irrelevant if you can’t take off.”

One thing that David talked about, which is clearly an emerging trend, is the ability to monitor drone operations through a real-time video stream. This goes beyond safety considerations – the real value is enabling someone with mission appropriate expertise to participate in the mission.

This same idea was shared by Art Pregler, AT&T’s UAS Program Director who noted that using a video stream, a remote engineer could guide a local tower crew. AT&T has 15,000 tower climbers and 65,000 installations and is estimating that 30% of tower climbs can be replaced by drone inspections. Art shared that his team has spent over a year getting the operation ramped up – they opened for business October 1. Someone asked him about ROI and Art explained that their initial goal is simply to break even.

Chris Hickling, the Director of Government Relations at the Edison Electric Institute noted that “Drones are the present,” illustrating the point with a map showing adoption across the country by large and small utilities. The number one value proposition is the contribution that drones can make to worker safety with the added benefit of frequent, versatile data collection. He shared that in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew, the Institute worked with local utilities and the FAA to set-up a hotline with the result that COA’s were issued in one hour for hard hit areas! Good job guys.

The panel was moderated by Dave Truch, the Technology Director for the Digital Innovation Organization at BP. He asked the panel to look five years out thinking about the trajectory of three technologies: autonomy, sensors and analytics. I thought that this was a very succinct way to sum up the trends most likely to drive the market.

Can’t end without a word of thanks to my Safety and Training Panel. Eric Mizufuka is responsible for launching a new product category for Epson – the Moverio smart glasses. These are AR glasses – augmented reality. This is not VR. And it is not FPV. Instead, these glasses will seamlessly blend digital content such as waypoints, geofences and targets of interest into the pilot’s view of the world.

Abby Speicher, the CEO of DARTdrones, a national flight school for drone pilots was joined by Amelia Owre, Dart’s Director of Curriculum Development. Abby fired through her 25-point checklist for UAV adoption – if you are considering a drone program it’s a must see.

And winning the title for champion cat herder is Brandon Stark, Director of the Center of Excellence in UAS Safety for all ten University of California campuses. Brandon is tasked with ensuring that some 500 drones fly safely. To put the challenge in perspective, Brandon told me that on average there is a safety incident every 30 hours. A word to the wise…

Thank you for reading and for sharing.


Christopher Korody
follow me @dronewriter


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