Top 4 Takeaways from AUVSI XPONENTIAL 2016 – New Orleans

My intro will be short and quick for this one so we can get to the good stuff! I go to AUVSI (now XPONENTIAL) every year. It’s my favorite of the drone shows to date, and has the best participation from industry, regulators, and international heavy hitters. I’m sharing notes about my trip to XPONENTIAL New Orleans with this summary of top key takeaways at one of the UAV Industry’s biggest events of the year. Here goes:

1. Holding Pattern Until 14 CFR 107

The Federal Aviation Administration sent the biggest delegation to Xponential 2016 to date, including the Administrator himself to engage with UAS industry and deliver the keynote address on Wednesday morning. What was pretty clear throughout the week is that no new announcements or decisions will be made prior to the release of the finalized Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, known as 14 CFR Part 107. Even the traditional, AUVSI Big Reveal was somewhat underwhelming as the FAA announced relaxed restriction on small UAS flights for education and research purposes at schools. The other announcement, a Drone Advisory Board, was met with mixed reviews as the lead chosen was Intel. Critics of the FAA say this move represents a continued courting of interests groups with little aviation background. It seems to me that if you already have the aviation expertise (FAA, RTCA, etc., then bringing in those on the forefront of innovation and technology (Intel, Google, Amazon) doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. As long as academia continues its representation and real research is presented in an unbiased way with support for industry consensus standards, I’ll be happy.
The industry seems to be waiting for clarity on exactly how the Section 333 process will evolve to include operators and manufacturers seeking access to limited operations without type certification such as Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and Operations Over People. While my and many others’ work with ASTM continues to help define the standards by which applicants will prove their safety understanding in support of those approvals, the specific process itself has yet to be well-defined in preparation for a post 14 CFR 107 world. The industry seems frustrated in general by this uncertain future for Section 333 exemption holders, how 14 CFR 107 will affect them, and whether or not the future of sUAS activities for Micro Classifications, Larger UAS, and riskier operations will be defined through an exemption to 14 CFR 91 or through actual rule-making.

2. Great Tech, Not so Great Business Plans

The show floor essentially broke down into three categories – The Prime Contractors, Hardware Manufacturers, and Components/Service Providers trying to do business with the other two. The Prime Contractors are probably the most fun to see, as they bring their future air-frames and GCSs to the show illustrating where the industry may go in the next 10 or so years. When you see their booths, you get the feeling that the real new tech will be classified for years and what we’re seeing is just the “soon-to-be commercialized” technology that has little innovative relevance in the market. It makes sense that the these “Big Bads” maintain a behind closed doors attitude for the latest and greatest as their markets are DoD and DHS specific; a show-floor isn’t exactly where the money comes from.

We’ve heard it time and time again, but it is still true. Creating an innovative product is far less important as finding a good problem to fix. Unmanned aircraft continues to show promise in a number of areas, but for the most part the only real success found to date has been in replacing manned aircraft. Until entrepreneurs discover, and successfully address challenges that aren’t simply replacing manned aircraft, we won’t see the promise of truly autonomous vehicles realized. It’s going to take time to refine autonomy, SAA, and HMI elements, but hopefully with the help of industry and private-public partnerships we’ll get there.

The Young Hardware Manufacturers are where the most interested, innovative, and exciting technology is found at AUVSI XPONENTIAL. From a portable, solar-powered inductive charging box for UAS, to heavy lift VTOL UAS, and even a fully autonomous version of the Yamaha RMAX on display, these corporate entrepreneurial small program manufacturers demoed interesting technology (Yamaha is still a minor player in the US UAS market regardless as to AUVSIs 2013 Report. What is also clear, however, is that hardware is not a differentiator (currently) in this space.

Also, this year proved to be the year of the knockoffs. Chinese vendor AEE seems to unabashedly make DJI Phantom and Osmo knockoffs as seen in the picture. Quadcopter, hexacopter, and a variety of size, shape, and color of VTOL and Fixed-wing UAS littered the show floor with little to differentiate between the companies. I’ll just say now I am glad I am not in the hardware manufacturing business as it would appear the market is well saturated with little to mark a clear leader besides DJI in the consumer marketplace.

3. Safety is Undefined and Misunderstood

If someone confuses “risk” (the combination of severity and likelihood scoring of a hazard) with a hazard (a condition that can lead to bodily harm or injury) again I may lose my cool. While safety is certainly a buzzword that seemingly every UAS company is beaten over the head with until they misuse it in nearly every conversation, it’s clear that for a majority of manufacturers and pilots, the idea of system safety, system reliability, and operational risk management is still confusing and seen as a bad word. It is great to see some big leaders in the field using it correctly, and you can see those service providers that are finding success in oil and gas following the ICAO SMS framework closely.

For those lucky enough to attend the panels and conversations on risk management, insurance, or the latest from ICAO, it’s clear that for this industry to grow into the stable, profit oriented, safety tolerant business necessary to meet the many challenges facing our agricultural, resource management, and safety and security industry needs, greater understanding of safety approaches and human machine interface effects are a requisite. Likewise, the industry will need to accept higher system reliability certification before realizing the UAS potential.

Scalability and application for SMS was a major topic, and it was heartening to hear that ICAO will be requiring SMS by its state safety programs in the near term (proposed 2018). Alex Mirot of the Unmanned Safety Institute and representatives from Global Aerospace also reinforced the need for safety appreciation at all levels of UAS operation in their discussion on UAS risk. As we teach at the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety & Security Program: Scalability and customization is key to ensuring the success of any SMS program, which is why off-the-shelf SMS doesn’t seem to work. Each institution needs their own SOPs, an executive’s support and accountability for safety, and resources allocated to the reinforcement of safety throughout business. It’s one thing to be legal, it’s another to be safe.

4. Software Beats Hardware, but Integration Trumps All

There is an adage in Silicon Valley it goes, “If you give me a good software engineer I could conquer the world.” It seems that is the truth for the UAS industry, as what’s holding the industry back is not hardware, sensors or even battery. Over the past two years, battery technology has had tremendous gains while solar energy, hydrogen fuel cells, and other propulsion elements (even tethers) have generated new and exciting air-frames as well as possible business plans. What is still rapidly innovating, and perhaps finding the greatest areas for opportunity, is the interactive sluice between human and machine.

Classic Remote Controls are not intuitive, do not provide requisite feedback for the level of expertise now needed for flight, and do not provide an adequate experience for the average UAS operator looking to use them for recreation or commercial activities. Yet, even in the “industry leader in agriculture” the remote has not changed much. We’re just starting to see the much needed application of augmented reality to this space and yet it is still an untapped opportunity.

Finally, the integration element is still immature as major companies go out and buy consumer grade hardware for rugged environments. Repetition, the ease of data acquisition, and the need for cloud-based data support will eventually differentiate the immature technology from major players, but we’re simply not seeing the needed solutions in today’s marketplace. Look for early and mid-software integration companies to be acquired in the near term and a focus on developing that back end support for controlled, privatized, and sterilized data transfer.

Harrison Wolf is a UAS safety & Security Expert with focuses in regulations, standards, technology commercialization, and program development. He created and teaches the Safety Management Systems (SMS) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Course, Report Writing for Aircraft Accident Investigation, and SMS for Airport Managers at the
USC Aviation Safety & Security Program. Harrison is currently the Business Development & Sales Manager with VStar Systems Inc., a multi-disciplinary systems integration firm specializing in end-to-end unmanned robotics, and is the President of Wolf UAS LLC, a UAS Safety & Policy Consulting Firm specializing in developing UAS safety programs for all sizes of commercial and public organizations.

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