AUVSI Day 3: Sparking an Unmanned Evolution

Airware Flight Control System Enabled DAx8

It is remarkable to see the unmanned systems market shift from what had traditionally been the purview of the military to a fast and growing commercial must-have capability. Commercial unmanned system suppliers and technology providers at this year’s AUVSI event now represent probably 80% to 90% of the show floor real estate. In fact AUVSI, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, is rebranding next year’s event Xponential to reflect this change and the rapid commercial market development.

The demonstrated applications are varied but tended to revolve around agribusiness, critical infrastructure inspection, news surveillance, search and rescue, entertainment, basic science and other applications. The majority of platforms displayed were unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and the overwhelming form factors are relatively small UAS platforms.

Stampede of Drones
Stampede of Drones

One would not have thought that farming and agribusiness would be at the center of this developing capability—but there is a significant amount of data to be had from aerial agriculture inspection from which valuable science can then be applied. Think soil moisture content, plant nitrogen, evapotranspiration, watershed restoration and so on. Small incremental advances in efficiency and yield are just as important to farmers as they are in other industries. California’s farmers dealing with the current drought could potentially realize dramatic improvements in water management using these unmanned platforms with advanced imaging payloads.

It seems as though there is a relatively low barrier to entry in this market, however. There has to be dozens of suppliers with all manner of UAS configurations from VTOL to fixed wing. It’s actually a bit like the wild west or a new gold rush—in fact, some of the names at this event even lend themselves to this new frontier. The industry has spawned distributors such as the likes of Stampede, promoting themselves as “The Leader in Pro AV Distribution.” Unmanned Cowboys builds a spherical UAV, the ATLAS, targeted at first responders that offers safety features for close human proximity. The list goes on.

Unmanned Cowboys Atlas UAV
Unmanned Cowboys ATLAS UAV

It was also exciting to see the innovation beginning to take place across the piece parts of the system including propulsion, unique airframe designs, battery technologies, small form factors LIDARS, motion control, and certified flight control computing.

The Chief Engineer at one of the large DoD aerospace manufacturers chuckled as he expressed to me his sense of loneliness and feeling out of place amongst the commercial market technologies. I don’t expect to see them at next year’s Xponential event. They’ll certainly reap the rewards of commercial market innovation, however.

Altavian Multi-rotor UAV
Altavian multi-rotor UAV enabled by Airware Certified Flight Controls

The real test for many of these platform suppliers is in the services their solutions need to provide the enterprise. It will soon become all about the data, the science and the analytics, not the novelty of the unmanned system. Talking to an engineer at a UAS company that got its start in agribusiness, he says he tells his team that “…it doesn’t matter how cool it looks so long as it gets the job done and delivers results.” There are some sexy looking UAVs here—but are they up to the rigors expected by enterprise customers that want reliable, repeatable service and the delivery of valuable data?

To that point, the industry will soon also need to expand beyond the current confines defined by the FAA. Beyond-line-of-sight capabilities will need to mature, as will the need to address safety certification.  

Airware has made safety certification a priority as they begin to build out their Airware eco-system around their certified flight control system.  This will enable them to grow beyond the current airspace limitations for these vehicles (GE is an investor in Airware).  

In the same way that great cities sprang from the wild west, so too it seems likely that unmanned systems revolution and evolution will bring real tangible benefits across many industries.

David French

David is the Director of Business Development for aviation programs for Abaco Systems. He started out his career as a design and systems engineer for space platforms and launch vehicle avionics. Impatient with the sometimes slow pace of new development opportunity there, he directed his energy toward the broader embedded computing universe from telecommunications infrastructure to defense electronics. He still marvels at the challenge and discovery in applied science and technology.

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