A Slow Evolution Characterized by Rapid Technological Change
I’ve had the luxury to be a part of this rapidly evolving drone community now for nearly a decade, and throughout that time lots has changed. I’ve met visionaries of volumetrics, chewed the fat with regulators and legislators, and provided reviewed research that drove real decisions in real time. Throughout all of this, we all took measure of the industry each day at home, and periodically throughout the year at the major community conferences. My personal mission at these events has evolved from representing University of Southern California to providing safety leadership on behalf of both Wolf UAS LLC and USC in the standards, regulatory, and commercial worlds. In 2010 ground and sea robotics were nearly as present as flying drones themselves. People were keen to pay $150 for small Chinese drone imports and military vendors dominated the field focused on automated support for the overseas soldier and special operations. We had no rules for small unmanned aircraft, the Pirker v. Huerta case was just a glimmer in Brendan Schulmann’s eye, and BVLOS operations were still “Just around the corner.”
Still in its infancy, the drone community came together around DJI, 3DR, and Parrot who provided hands-on experiences for the consumer shortly thereafter, and the race for the “Best Drone” was officially on. From the software companies who are no more, to the still dominant forces in attendance, the AUVSI showcase has provided the breeding ground for start-ups, education, regulators, and international business for years. Others have tried to copy the magic that is AUVSI, re-branded as XPONENTIAL, in Atlanta two years ago; some have had success focusing on the sUAS market like the folks over at sUAS News in San Francisco. Others have focused on the Commercial market alone like Interdrone, Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas, or the Drone World Expo in San Jose. One trend seems to be evident as the UAS story progresses – we’re now in the specialization and industry verticals life-cycle phase of the industry.
Why Verticals Matters
When a new technology is developing and new markets are excitedly discovering use cases and business models that make investors and entrepreneurs salivate, the business community has roughly the same needs. Drones were no different – educating the public that these unmanned aircraft weren’t just military killers but could also be used for good was among the top of the list. Promoting business over military and identifying key regulatory needs that could bolster investment took center stage shortly thereafter and has maintained a key component of most discussions over the past few years. Today we see a wide base of early adopters who evangelize the positive uses overtime while evolving the autonomous and connectivity technologies that provide future success.
Initially, business leaders saw co-operation with competition as the best mechanism for reaching similar goals. Major manufacturers allied themselves with software start-ups and service providers under the same lobbying groups like the Small UAV Coalition and allowed Google and Amazon to lead the efforts for regulatory changes. As the sUAV Coalition fell apart, and attendance at “one size fits all” conferences faltered with greater competition and regional opportunities, the pathway forward seemed to be clear. The industry turned to smaller, topic specific conferences to provide training, sales, marketing, and information targeted to their specific challenge at a fraction of the price.
Verticals are the biggest game in town and the industry is responding. From three major conferences a plethora of industry specific, smaller meetings, webinars, and phone conferences, the unmanned systems community is recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all. Even with larger verticals, such as the energy field, diverse needs and requirement drive enough content and lessons learned that oil and gas, wind production, distribution, and transmission have all developed expertise that can be shared beyond a 1 hour session on “Energy: Lessons Learned.” While exciting, this is also leading to an exhaustion in attendance that may be hard to overcome for the medium and small conference promoters who attempt to be all things to all industries. If we look to the energy industry in particular, we find new and exciting opportunities for the industry to evolve uniquely from others. The Energy Drone Coalition, with support from their own industry experts through their board of advisers, is putting together a conference in the heart of oil and gas country that highlights the needs of their industry. This is a model being replicated successfully throughout major industry verticals.
What we’ve seen in the system development life-cycle is a realization of this evolution. The unquestionable leadership of DJI in the consumer space and industrial application has led to a specialization of their platform. We’ve seen the hardening of their technology for EMI interference, weather, and connectivity. The DJI Inspire 2 and the M210 address drawbacks to the DJI platforms at a price that undercuts any other industrial application UAS such as the Aeryon Scout and address the same Enterprise level operation requirements at consumer prices. As we look to the Sensefly platforms, we see a diversification away from consumer and toward specific mining, agriculture, and aquaculture.
The next step, clearly, will be a need for airworthiness certification and standardization within industries to provide competitive advantage away from consumer grade models and toward Industrial grade platforms. The beginnings of this are occurring as seen in Aerovironment’s recent testing at the BVLOS Corridor in collaboration with Ligado’s satellite connectivity platform and Dominion Powers expertise.
Here we have a highly developed, systems engineering platform maintaining BVLOS grade connectivity while working with an industry leader on the East Coast for power provision (Dominion Power). Aerovironment’s leadership has invested in systems grade engineering, fostered relationships where they matter most, and integrated a robust Safety Management System (SMS) to provide the industry with a quality product. The real question is, will anyone pay for it?