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News & Notes

Drone World Expo

Second annual event grapples with end-user applications

November 22, 2016

To open day two of Drone World Expo, Gretchen West (far left) led the keynote panel exploring the realities of drone delivery.
Leah Froats
The second annual Drone World Expo was held at the San Jose Convention Center in — where else? — downtown San Jose, Nov. 15-16, 2016. The event focused on commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS), their uses, case studies, and regulatory information. This year’s conference drew nearly 100 industry exhibitors, 120 speakers, and 2,711 attendees.

Gretchen West, senior advisor at Hogan Lovells and cofounder of the Commercial Drone Alliance, served as the conference’s master of ceremonies for the second year in a row. West moderated keynote panels discussing the future of drones and the reality of drone deliveries in the U.S. with noted UAS experts from companies and institutions as diverse as NASA, Virginia Tech, IBM, X (formerly Google X), and Zipline International. More than 100 speakers for more than 30 conference sessions attended, and companies sponsored more than two-dozen half-hour tech talk events.

The promise of widespread commercial drone use raises high hopes, but reconciling those expectations with reality proves a persistent challenge for the industry. One of the big questions that many attendees and speakers grappled with, both in organized and casual discussions, was the practical application of UAS.

A drone anodyne

A misconception seems to have spread that UAS could be the answer to practically any business problem, so eager are people to employ them. Gabriel Torres, cofounder and CEO of MicaSense, observed that drones are not a silver bullet. Torres pointed out that drone-mounted sensors can provide early and advance scouting for agriculture, but a drone is just a tool.“In the end, it goes back to the agronomist, the farmer, and the consultant to understand what’s going on, on the ground,” he says.

Regulatory hurdles remain a pain point — particularly surrounding flying beyond visual line-of-sight and at night. But with Part 107 in effect, there is remarkably less frustration with the FAA than there was last year. Still, for some, the agency’s cautious steps stand in the way of progress they say has been proven safe. Steve Wackowski, operations manager at Fairweather in Alaska, cites the FAA as the number one challenge for UAS companies doing work in oil and gas.

The conference’s panel on drones for law enforcement communicated a similar concern. The panel of officers communicated a mixed range of feelings about the Part 107 legislation, but that certificates of authorization (COAs) remain a major obstacle for public agencies looking to frequently use UAS.

The Quantix drone, which takes off like a rocket and flies like a fixed-wing, was announced at Drone World Expo.
Courtesy of AeroVironment
The hardware vs. software challenge

Many of the event’s panels, discussions, and demonstrations focused heavily on software. In contrast to InterDrone, Drone World Expo did not focus heavily on the release of flashy new hardware.

The major hardware announcement was AeroVironment’s Quantix, a hybrid fixed wing/quadcopter capable of vertical takeoffs and landings and horizontal flight. Battery life estimates weighed in at a respectable 45 to 60 minutes.

Much of the Quantix reveal focused on the software behind the drone as opposed to the drone itself. Representatives from AeroVironment discussed the cloud-based Decision Support System built to provide an end-to-end ecosystem for the Quanitx UAV, including a configurable dashboard, portal, and application to provide data and analytics to the user.

Tom Stone, director of commercial UAVs for AeroVironment, says the “scalability of the [Quantix] system is immense,” with the durability of the airframe ensuring a significant return on investment for the end user.

DJI quickly eclipsed AeroVironment’s big news with an unveiling of its own. The consumer drone behemoth, which did not have a presence at Drone World Expo, showed off its new Phantom 4 Pro ($1,499) and Inspire 2 ($2,999), both updated versions of popular DJI airframes, at a separate event in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

It's practically impossible for competing consumer and prosumer drone companies to keep pace with DJI's rapid technological advancements and low price points — a challenge even for DJI itself. Company spokesperson Adam Lisberg told Marketwatch, “If [DJI’s] pricing cannibalizes our own products, that’s OK.”

Intel showed off its burgeoning fleet of drones at Drone World Expo, including its new Shooting Star drone. Isn't it just plain cute?
Leah Froats
Eyes to the skies

While the drone industry — and its current and potential end users — face many challenges, the overall tone of the conference was one of determination and high expectations for the industry.

In the drones for mining panel, attendees asked mining industry drone users Mike Moy and Trent Sieverding what they wish they’d known about drones when they started using them. Both wished they could have known about the potential for UAS sooner.

Panels explored some of the more innovative drone applications that are beginning to move toward standard practices, such as live-streaming digital content, performing shoreline cleanup and assessment after oil spills, and monitoring for wildlife before performing oil and gas operations.

The innovation, experience, and curiosity displayed at Drone World Expo 2016 showed promise for the future of the commercial UAS industry. Next year’s event will take place at the San Jose Convention Center on Oct. 3 and 4.

Featured image: Tim Kidwell