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UAS Conference in U.S. Ushers in New Drone Order

 - June 13, 2015, 8:07 AM
On the eve of the conference, the FAA granted Yamaha Motor Corp. USA an exemption to fly the Rmax helicopter. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The Unmanned Systems conference in the U.S., traditionally the largest event of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry, is no longer your father’s military-focused trade gathering. As of next year, it will also have a new name. The sponsoring Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has rebranded the annual trade show as “Xponential.”

The new name reflects the robotic aircraft industry’s “tremendous growth and innovation…as well as the broad societal benefits of the technology,” explained AUVSI. Indeed, UAS–more popularly called drones–have evolved relatively recently from military and model aircraft roots into a promising new commercial industry.

AUVSI has also evolved. The association traces its start to 1972 as the U.S. disengaged from the Vietnam War, a conflict that saw drones used extensively as decoys and for jamming radars and reconnaissance. This year, AUVSI elected a new slate of directors that includes representatives from Amazon and Google, Internet-age companies that aspire to use drones for package deliveries and telecommunications. The association’s chairmanship still reflects the old order; it changed hands from John Lademan of Northrop Grumman to John Burke of Airbus. In January, Brian Wynne, who previously led the Electric Drive Transportation Association, succeeded long-time former U.S. Department of Defense executive Michael Toscano as AUVSI’s president and CEO.

This year’s Unmanned Systems conference, held May 4-7 in Atlanta, Georgia, drew nearly 600 exhibitors and 8,000 attendees, roughly the same numbers as in recent years. But the opening general session spoke to the new face of AUVSI. Moderated by Colin Guinn, chief revenue officer of small drone manufacturer 3D Robotics (3DR), it featured a “visionary commercial UAS panel” consisting of David Vos, the leader of Google’s Project Wing effort; CyPhy Works CEO Helen Greiner, an MIT-trained roboticist who co-invented the “Roomba” robotic vacuum cleaner; and David Vigilante, chief editorial counsel for cable network CNN.

CNN later figured in the conference’s highest profile announcement, which saw Federal Aviation Administration administrator Michael Huerta traveling to Atlanta to announce that CNN, BNSF Railway and dronemaker PrecisionHawk will participate with the agency in a “pathfinder project” to explore beyond-line-of-sight and other operations of small fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones. Expanded flight envelopes are considered critical for the package delivery plans of Amazon and Google, as well as for other types of operations.

Legacy UAS manufacturers such as AeroVironment, Boeing Insitu, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Textron Systems and L-3 Communications remained prominent in the exhibit hall. Sikorsky displayed the event’s largest aircraft: a Black Hawk helicopter the manufacturer used for its UH-60M upgrade effort, with markings from its “Matrix” program to develop an autonomous helicopter. Sikorsky hopes to interest the U.S. Army in an optionally piloted Black Hawk. In the age of small multi-rotor drones, the manufacturer wanted to demonstrate the scale of what is possible, an executive said.

But the American public will sooner see a small unmanned helicopter that has already flown for two decades in Japan as well as in Australia and South Korea. On May 1, the FAA granted Yamaha Motor Corporation USA an exemption to fly its 200-pound Rmax agricultural helicopter over private or controlled-access properties to treat crops. The Rmax, which Yamaha displayed in Atlanta, at the time was the largest unmanned platform the FAA had authorized to operate in the U.S., and the first approved for crop spraying.

Different Market Approaches

Other companies that exhibited at the conference are taking different approaches to the burgeoning commercial market for unmanned aircraft. Drone designer Jordi Munoz and former Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson co-founded 3DR in 2009. Colin Guinn joined the company last year after heading the North America branch of Dajiang Innovation Technology Co., or DJI, the Shenzhen, China-based company that is on track to become the first billion-dollar manufacturer of consumer drones. In an interview with AIN, Guinn recalled drawing attention at the Unmanned Systems 2012 conference in Las Vegas with DJI’s Zenmuse Z15 three-axis stabilized camera gimbal, an industry first, mounted under a Spreading Wings S800 hexacopter.

“We made a big splash because we had a system that you could get for $6,500, that shot perfectly stable imagery, that you didn’t see anywhere else at the show,” Guinn said. Next came DJI’s popular Phantom quadcopter, which, among other feats, made news in January when one crash-landed on the White House lawn. “With the Phantom being the success that it was, AUVSI realizes that they need to bring companies in like that,” he added. “I don’t know for a fact, but I would venture to say that the number one commercial drone being used today is the Phantom. That’s the drone that people have.”

3DR displayed what Guinn described as its first mass-market offering–the Solo quadcopter–at Unmanned Systems 2015. Positioned to compete against DJI’s Phantom 3, the Solo weighs less than five pounds, runs on open-source software to allow for customized functions, and retails at $995 for the drone itself–more for a gimbal and GoPro camera. Solo is designed to accommodate both recreational uses and commercial drone applications, such as for aerial inspections of cellular towers, wind turbines and powerlines as well as real estate photography.

“My vision is (to combine) 3DR’s historic open innovation model, and the ability for the entire community and third-party developers to add value to our platform, with the convenience of being ready to fly out of the box,” Guinn said. “So somebody who just wants to get really nice aerial video doesn’t have to become a pro or build their own system…Solo is a commercial product that consumers will buy and use all day long.”

AeroVironment, founded by aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready in 1971, sees things differently. The publicly traded company based in Monrovia, California, already supplies more than 80 percent of the small drones the U.S. military services use in the form of hand-launched Raven, Puma and Wasp airplanes. In 2013, AeroVironment secured one of the first two restricted-category type certifications the FAA issued for a commercial unmanned aircraft, enabling it to fly the Puma for oil company BP on Alaska’s North Slope. It has also won customers for its Qube quadcopter among police agencies, including the sheriffs’ departments in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Ventura County, California.

“When we think of the commercial market, we’re defining that as the non-military market, and there are different segments within that commercial market,” said Steven Gitlin, AeroVironment vice president for marketing strategy and communications. “We’re not defining it as the consumer market–the hobbyist or RC types of devices. We’re looking at it more as an enterprise or institutional capability for major businesses or government agencies.”

For now, AeroVironment isn’t focused on “systems that you can use to take pretty pictures, because there are plenty of systems out there that you can use to do that cheaply,” Gitlin said. But he didn’t rule out the legacy manufacturer eventually targeting the consumer market.

“It’s hard to be everything to everybody,” Gitlin said. “You need to focus on those opportunities that are going to create the greatest value for customers and the greatest value for shareholders. There may come a point in the future where we’re convinced that there’s a compelling argument to be made for another segment of the market. If we can justify that, than I wouldn’t preclude us going after different segments.”