Drone Industry Updates from AUVSI 2017 – Current and Predicted Trends

For the last seven years, I’ve been privileged enough to take part in the excitement and experience of AUVSI’s largest unmanned aircraft exposition on the planet, now known as XPONENTIAL. Each year is different. Where years ago military UAS and ground robotics dominated the show floor and law enforcement provided the substance of the educational sessions, now we see commercial success stories at every turn. Though others may hope to brand XPONENTIAL as the “military drone show,” it is quite clear that AUVSI has turned a corner in their growth; heralding in a positive motive energy that seemed to define all the announcement, interactions, and public releases. While there are always more items to address, below are just a few ofthe takeaways I saw. All of this, really, could be summed up as commoditization.

Airbus announced early in the week a new service within the UAS space; leveraging established data acquisition capabilities and high altitude imaging (satellites and HALE UAS). Airbus Aerial is a commercial UAS imagery service provider that is, frankly, well positioned to make a splash in a huge way. Led by Airware alum President Jesse Kallman,  this UAS service team will have a leadership group that has experience in the space rather than just success from external technology markets. With this announcement, the first trend from the show became clear, the drones as a service industry is getting crowded, and few are differentiating themselves.

Every comment from clients, and those with whom they interact, is that existing major providers Measure and Kespry’s analytics, data processing, or customer workflow aren’t easy to manage or are cumbersome. If Airbus Aerial, Aerial Applications, or various other service providers with software integration hope to win this fight, they had better listen to new customer needs (and I think both may be well positioned for that). No longer is the sUAS space blue ocean ahead; there are sharks in the water and it’s going to be a fight.

The second takeaway is that I’m glad I am not a manufacturer of small unmanned aircraft systems. While I am a firm believer in the necessity for specific machines for specific tasks, the industry has come to a point where manufacturers are touting their wares without any sort of verification or certification. Perhaps it is a by-product of the lack of clarity or regard for testing or perhaps it is a lack of available airspace within which to test, or perhaps you can just get away with it as a manufacturer; one thing is clear – it isn’t sustainable. The sheer number of drone manufacturers all trying to claim the scraps left over from DJI is alarming. Further, the level of specialization doesn’t quite create the assured adoption by targeted industry verticals that seems to be needed. It will be interesting to see how the industry goes. Will Precision Hawk and Intel’s vision of a fully integrated system of software and hardware win out over DJIs more open platform, and provide the “turn-key solution” for industry or will customers still utilize DJIs newest industrial focused platforms at the current estimated 80:20 adoption ratio?

Is this really the interface of the future?

Beyond hardware, we saw serious announcements from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and FAA highlight their dedication and involvement the RPAS UAS space. On Tuesday, Leslie Cary, ICAO’s RPAS Programme Manager announce, “a Request for Information on what [ICAO] believe[s] are the top priorities that must be addressed by States, industry and academia in order to develop safe and efficient UTM systems…This will allow further developments to focus on better defined issues, whether technical, operational or legal. It will also ensure Safety continues to remain the driving factor.

ICAO is the natural agency to be gathering together the best and brightest from governments and industry to define the problem so that global solutions can be proposed, debated and agreed.” As an international standard and recommend practices entity with the full force of the United Nations behind it, ICAO seems a good fit to provide leadership in UTM to avoid a mishmash of standard practice. As a note, ASTM and RTCA (both standards groups that are pushing the way forward in the United States) also try to provide international homogeneity. For more information on the ICAO announcement (there is much more to discuss including the upcoming RPAS Drone ENABLE) check out the link HERE!

Of course, this wouldn’t be a complete article without discussing some of the safety and FAA focused announcements, discussions, and findings as well as their implications for the industry. The buzz this year was in how the FAA is providing greater a access to the airspace as a direct result of the findings from the Pathfinder mission and test outcomes from ASSURE and others. By enabling a formal testing method for UAS operations through the Center of Excellence and Pathfinder projects, we’ll soon begin seeing more of the BVLOS applications processed. I am looking forward to being able to provide my colleagues and clients with enabling operations that prove out their own business cases in the BVLOS, EVLOS, and Flight Operations over People sooner rather than later. Let’s not forget, however, that technology is not the enabler of these operations – it is the appreciation for safety and formalized approach to safety that will prove out the case necessary for authorizations.

The most exciting announcement personally is that the FAA is now recognizing F3178 Operational Risk Assessment of sUAS Best Practice Standard to meet their requirements for waiver applications for higher risk environments. The below capture is taken from a denied waiver application shared with me since I helped in that the effort within ASTM. One of the major issues with industry standards is an effort to ensure the CAA accepts the standard to meet their requirements; the standard is only as good as its use. Well, today we know the FAA is accepting this standard to meet their hazard identification and analysis requirements – YAY!

So, what’s next? Where is, the industry heading? Well here are my predictions moving forward and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • We’ll soon see some service providers leave the market as competition increases and they struggle to acquire big clients or differentiate their technologies
  • Data Management Tools will  proliferate and compete based on unique qualities, however increased competition will demand certain capabilities and those without them will lose market share
  • Manufacturers will turn further to niche markets and will either prove their usefulness based on unique capabilities or die out
  • The FAA is more open to new operations such as BVLOS, EVLOS, and Flights over People as a result of the findings from ASSURE and the Test Sites.
  • On the standards front, The ASTM Design, Construct, and Test standard will be a game changer for proving continued airworthiness and moving toward certification.

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