Analysis: 5 Aerial Robotics Takeaways from Xponential 2019

CHICAGO – While the tagline for the Xponential show claims it’s about “All Things Unmanned”, the large majority of the show’s content and expo hall vendors is about unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones, both large (fixed-wing and defense-oriented) and small (quad-copter or vertical takeoff and landing).

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s plenty of growth opportunities for the drone industry, especially on the commercial and industrial usage of “aerial robots” to perform tasks that are deemed dangerous for humans, or to provide new types of analytics that are less expensive than traditional aircraft. There were also glimpses of the future, as companies showed off unmanned aerial passenger vehicle prototypes that gathered large crowds during the week.

Produced by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), Xponential 2019 gathered more than 8,500 attendees in three-and-a-half days of educational sessions, keynotes, show floor demonstrations, and awards. With a market that’s expected to triple in the next five years (growing to $43.1 billion from $14.1 billion), there’s a lot of optimism in the air.

Here are some of my takeaways from this year’s Xponential:
High hopes for commercial, industrial drones
Many speakers and most of the attendees I spoke with agree that the aerial robot industry is on the cusp of tremendous growth, the “hockey stick” of an exponential curve about to begin.

Michael Chasen, PrecisionHawk CEO

“[Xponential] is the leading indicator of where the technology is going,” said Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk. “So you have to know this and say, ‘Aha, and here’s how it can be applied to the commercial industries that we’re serving.’ ”

Chasen gave an example of this growth, telling Robotics Business Review that he hired about 100 people in February alone to deal with the demand for the company’s services. “I’m glad I can say this,” he said. “We’re seeing so much work, and the hardest challenge is just operationalizing against the opportunity.”

In his opening remarks, AUVSI President Brian Wynne mentioned that members surveyed indicated that 95% were optimistic about the future of the industry, and that 60% expected to grow their businesses a lot in the next few years.

“This is a group of doers and we tend to be optimistic,” said Wynne. “But when you think about all the industries that are being disrupted now and being turned upside down, I personally feel really good about being part of a community that’s very optimistic about our prospects in the future.”
Commercial operations need solid counter-UAS systems
Moving the drone industry forward also requires an acknowledgement that any new technology will bring its share of bad actors, and speakers at the show commented that a solid plan of defending against malicious drones would need to occur before commercialization could really take off.

Addressing this at the show, AUVSI and the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) announced forming a “Blue Ribbon Task Force on UAS Mitigation at Airports.” The task force will bring together a cross-section of stakeholders that represent the airport, UAS and manned aviation communities to “refine procedural practices and provide a policy framework to address the timely and critical issue of incursions by unauthorized UAS at airports, and how to best mitigate this threat.”

Random thoughts from the show…

While a lot of work remains for regulations to improve, participants in a panel about the UAS Integration Pilot Program after a year have said they’ve made a lot of progress with their missions to determine the best way to provide rules around BVLOS, flying over people, flying at night, and thoughts of a unmanned traffic management (UTM) system.
AI and machine learning advances will drive the use of aerial drones in commercial and industrial applications, not just the drones themselves, as ways to help humans in dirty or dangerous situations.
The key to growth for the drone industry is public acceptance. Outreach is very important for those in the drone industry, not  just for acceptance, but to show people how drones can be valuable for humans, not just as ways to replace jobs or invade privacy, etc.
Most of the companies on the show floor were from the large UAS industry (major aviation companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin) showing fixed wing unmanned aircraft, and yet small drone makers were also a growing portion of the show (as well as services, components, etc.). A few industry attendees that have gone to the show for many years said they were impressed by the number of hybrid systems, ones that could perform fixed-wing and VTOL operations.
There were large crowds at the Bell Flight booth, which had a large prototype of its people-mover unmanned aircraft/copter. The company said it’s imagining commercial services for passengers by the middle of the next decade.

The task force will include former government officials, security professionals and aviation executives, including Michael Huerta, former administrator at the FAA, and Deborah Flint, the CEO of Los Angeles World Airports as co-chairs.

In another session at the show addressing counter-UAS, Jasminder Banga, the CEO of Airspace Systems, said commercial drone activity wouldn’t really take off until UAS security is addressed. “What’s going to happen is that UAS security is absolutely going to be a prerequisite to anything commercial on the UAS side,” Banga said. “All of the things you’re hearing about from the Project Wing to all these other avents that are happening right now, they’re very controlled tests with spotters everywhere. They’re not open and displaying everywhere they want to fly. There’s going to be a real need for that security across the board before you’re allowed to do all the commercial activity.”
Rehumanizing employees will allay fears around robots, AI
Keynoter Dan Lyons, author of several books that mock Silicon Valley and a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley TV show, talked about how the overall drone and robotics industry needs to “rehumanize” companies, saying technology tends to dehumanize companies in favor of approaching automation and robotics efforts. It’s a similar theme about public acceptance that hopefully more in the industry will recognize as they tout new products and services.
The open-source movement?
I had a great conversation with the two co-founders of Auterion, Dr. Lorenz Meier and Kevin Sartori, about whether drone manufacturers will adopt more open standards to speed up integration and grow the market even faster. “[The drone industry is] a lot like the automotive industry in 1909, where there were 5,000 parts suppliers,” Meier said. “The kind of fragmentation in the market we’re seeing now is not sustainable.”

The company made several announcements at the show, teaming up with Impossible Aerospace to provide its enterprise open-source operating system for the US-1 drone, and GE Aviation to provide all-in-one hardware and software for its commercial drones.

Auterion’s Enterprise PX4 OS will be integrated into GE Aviation’s Unmanned Aircraft System avionics platform, giving them a full stack solution with airborne autopilot and application computing hardware, flight management, safety management, and integration. GE Aviation will provide the avionics hardware, application computing, flight management and integration into the airframes. The company said the objective is to support developers through global open software standards while maintaining an independent and authoritative safety controller. This will enable commercial drone operations beyond visual line of sight and within complex airspace and obstacle environments, it added.

The companies said flight testing of the hardware and software platform occurred over the past three weeks in Reno, Nev., at the Reno-Stead airport. ” In demonstrating a seamless integration of ground, cloud and airborne components, we’ve reached another milestone in helping to unlock the value in autonomous and UAS advanced operations,” said Alan Caslavka, president of Avionics Systems for GE Aviation. “Auterion’s open standards leadership and cooperative legacy with the developer community is foundational to a scalable and sustainable solution critical for commercial drones.”

Sartori said the company was excited about the collaboration with GE Aviation, which allows the company to offer its OS on high reliability hardware to meet future regulations.  “With this collaboration, the combined solution will significantly reduce barriers commercial cargo drones face flying in manned airspace or inspection drones to flying in urban areas.”

The company also announced earning a $2 million grant from the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which accelerates the adoption of commercial technology into the U.S. military to strengthen national security. The grant will be used to further enhance the PX4 software, accelerating open source projects with a focus on cybersecurity improvements, UX upgrades, communication protocols, and computer vision enhancements. The work will take place over a 12-month performance period, the company said.
New drones, new applications
Several companies made new product and service announcements at the show, honing in on specific use cases or applications for end users in specific vertical markets.

senseFly announced its Solar 360 drone application for inspecting solar panels. Source: senseFly

For example, senseFly introduced its Solar 360 fixed-wing drone, created in collaboration with software company Raptor Maps. The new system is designed to enable the automated and efficient inspection of solar farms at a sub-module level. The system was created by combining eBee X fixed-wing drone technology, senseFly’s Duet T thermal mapping camera, and Raptor Maps software, the companies said. They added the system can be easily integrated into solar management workflows without requiring either drone piloting skills or the manual analysis of aerial solar farm data.

“At senseFly we are continually looking across the industry to identify new commercial partners with whom we can bring to market what our customers need, which is vertically-focused end-to-end solutions,” said Gilles Labossière, CEO of senseFly. “With Raptor Maps, we are collaborating with a true solar industry pioneer. Their software takes the guesswork out of solar farm inspection and, crucially, speeds up this process – from days down to hours. This efficiency, combined with the eBee X’s large coverage and reliability, ensures that farm owners and operators — or the drone service providers they employ — can inspect utility-scale solar farms more quickly, easily, and accurately than ever before.”

The company also announced that Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) has approved BVLOS flights to be carried out in the country for the first time in the country’s history, using UAS technology from senseFly (read more here).

An example of the Casia Collision avoidance system by Iris Automation.

Iris Automation announced Casia, a turnkey collision-avoidance system designed for the commercial drone industry. The computer vision detect-and-avoid solution aims to enable BVLOS operations for autonomous vehicles. The company said Casia detects other aircraft, uses machine learning to classify them, makes intelligent decisions about the threat they may pose to the vehicle, and triggers automated maneuvers to avoid collisons.

The combination of hardware and software is lightweight, low power, and small in size, and includes artificial intelligence algorithms packaged in a self-contained supercomputer that works with a machine vision camera.

More from Xponential, drones:

Flyability Launches Next Generation of Indoor Inspection Drone
Drone Delivery in the U.S. Clears Major Hurdle
Xponential 2019 Preview: Aerial Drones to Take Center Stage
Market for Commercial Drones to Nearly Triple by 2024, Research Says

“Casia is the critical piece our industry has been dreaming about for years – finally allowing us to use drones to their full commercial potential,” said Iris Automation CEO Alexander Harmsen. “By unlocking BVLOS flight with Casia, operators all over the world will be able to use their aircraft in every conceivable scenario.”

Iris said the Casia technology has been extensively tested, with more than 7,000 real-world test flights and mid-air collision scenarios – flying various manned aircraft against UAS – and over 40,000 encounters in simulation. Casia also ran a successful early adopter program with more than 30 participating beta customers from five countries.

Iris Automation is working directly with regulators around the world to make drones safer and more accessible, ensuring Casia achieves the highest levels of safety for national airspace use. With the Casia launch, Iris Automation will also offer customers regulatory support for Part 107 waiver writing and regulatory approval processes to secure the necessary permissions for their unique UAS operations.

Now available, you can head here for more details.

Next year’s Xponential will be held in Boston, from May 4-7, 2020. You can find more details here.
Analysis: 5 Aerial Robotics Takeaways from Xponential 2019