Commercial UAS Industry Gathers at Drone World Expo

 - October 4, 2017, 11:14 AM
Panelists at the opening session keynote at the third annual Drone World Expo shared their views on the opportunities and challenges of integrating drones into the national airspace system. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

The third annual Drone World Expo opened yesterday morning at the San Jose Convention Center in San Jose, California. Attendance is up over last year and expected to exceed 3,000 attendees, according to show organizer JD Events. There are also more than 70 exhibitors and 45 educational sessions being held at the two-day show.

Drone World Expo serves the commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or vehicle (UAV) industry, and the opening keynote panel session addressed the future of commercial UAS operations and challenges facing drone operations due to regulatory and regional constraints, including measures needed to ensure access to airspace.

Martin Gomez, Facebook director of aeronautical platforms, explained that “UAVs will always be outsiders until a policy or regulatory framework is created that lets them be operated in a useful manner and a safe manner and a manner that shares what is effectively a natural resource, namely airspace.”

Aiming to put that airspace to use is Alphabet (formerly Google) X’s Project Wing, which is testing drone package delivery in Australia, in part because the regulatory climate there is more favorable for such testing. “It’s not just cheaper and faster,” said Project Wing head of public policy Laura Ponto, “but the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.”

Parimal Kopardekar, NASA manager of the Safe Autonomous Systems Operation project, reassured the audience that the U.S. government is trying to help the commercial drone industry. “We’re trying to make sure your businesses flourish by giving you access to airspace and interoperability with other operators,” he said. The challenge faced by governments is that drone operations are forecast to dominate demand for airspace access. Today’s 50,000 manned aircraft operations per day worldwide will compare to a projected 2.6 million commercial drone operations per day in 2020. “How do we enable those without burdening the current air traffic management system?” he asked. NASA’s UAS traffic management (UTM) concept allows drone operators to share their devices’ intents with each other but also with air navigation service providers, which can in turn share airspace restrictions and other constraints with the drones. “We want to enable all of these operations in the same airspace at the same time, and going beyond visual line of sight in the presence of other aircraft,” he said.

GE is expanding its role in using drones for inspection services, according to Susan Roberts, founder/executive of GE Beyond. “We think we can automate 35 to 65 percent of all existing regulated inspections that our customers are doing,” she said, “making it much safer, removing humans from dangerous areas or from jobs that are hard to get people to do or are cumbersome. There is a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to do these jobs, and a dramatic improvement in safety that we can bring to bear by using robots.”

At Airbus Aerial, president Jesse Kallman and his team are focusing on levering the data collected by drones and satellites. “How do you use [this data] as part of a broader ecosystem and turn it into something useful?” he asked. “It’s no longer a novelty. It’s something that’s becoming part of how people want to leverage this and use it as a daily part of their business.”

Asked about where they see developments headed for the commercial drone industry, the panelists agreed that participants need to work together and with regulators and communities to integrate drones in the National Airspace System.

“Drones are like consumer electronics,” said Facebook’s Gomez. There is a clash of cultures between traditional airspace users and drone operators, and the two groups need to engage with each other, he added.

Kallman of Airbus Aerial foresees adoption of an “urban air mobility” concept, which will allow UAVs, including passenger-carrying personal air vehicles, to share airspace with traditional aviation users. Airbus is conducting tests in Singapore, moving packages from ship to shore.

“We will see a future where drones will be part of the aviation ecosystem,” agreed Project Wing’s Ponto. “There are lots of benefits to embracing different forms of UAS technology. Once we get through this growth period, the sky will open up.”

“We need to embrace what this can do for society,” said Roberts of GE Beyond.

"Safe and sustainable operations in the national airspace are essential,” said NASA’s Kopardekar, “so that we leave no user or use case behind.”