This week I had the pleasure of attending my first Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco’s Presidio. This annual confab of the drone industry is hosted by sUAS News and the brainchild of its head honcho Patrick Egan. I am usually not a big fan of industry meetings and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But by the first coffee break on day one, I could tell this was a different kind of get together and was already exceeding my expectations.
Nearly every speaker was fantastic, the exhibitors were great, and the hallway conversations sparked numerous ideas for future collaborations. I bumped into no less than three people I had been either been hoping to meet face to face or figured I’d only ever know via e-mail conversations within the first few hours. I had lunch with a 333 lawyer from Chicago, talked with an engineer from Salt Lake City over cookies, bumped into a fellow professor in the hallway (the only other academic I met the entire meeting), discussed manufacturing capabilities in Reno over tea at a start up’s booth, and met a leading Search and Rescue innovator at the registration desk. While the majority of attendees were from the San Francisco Bay Area or California, I also met a respectable helping of folks from as far afield as Canada, Europe, Africa, and China. There is much to be said for being in the same place and time with fellow travelers struggling through similar birthing pains as we all help to blow on the flame of this nascent industry.
In addition to the networking opportunities, the excellent array of great speakers were a highpoint of this meeting. I have summarized below a few of our first-day speakers and exhibitors, often including videos of their presentations. Please note that sUAS News posts videos from this year’s speakers (and archives previous speakers’ presentations) on their website. Check out their more complete video archives for all days of the meeting and from meetings in previous years.
Overview of the Drone Industry: Patrick Egan
Mr. Egan gave us an overview of where he feels the drone industry is going. Chief among his observations were frequent references to the efforts to integrate drones in the U.S. National Air Space (NAS) and the associated trials and tribulations the FAA is causing and/or experiencing. Egan went into a few of these tribulations.
For example, Egan noted Cliff Whitney, owner of Atlanta Hobby reported his drone sales are down 70% since the October 2015 announcement by the FAA of their new policy requiring private drone owners to register their platforms. Note: later speakers noted that this may only be an issue for some sectors/retailers.
Most drone manufacturers have not fully come to terms with the expectations of robust safety performance. For example, under proposed rules, a small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) may operate over people only if the manufacturer of that sUAS certifies to the FAA that the sUAS does not, in the most probable types of failures, exceed the safety standards of the airspace.
In general, Mr. Egan argued the drone industry needs:
- credible and “qualified” advocacy representation
- to manage the hype of over exuberant drone proponents
- to emphasize business (civilian) uses and get away from the military stuff
- science-based integration of risk (especially establishing a risk threshold)
- global harmonization of certifications (not promulgating “exemptions”)
- regulatory accountability and a willingness to question the FAA when they do foolish things
Note: the following video was recorded at the start of the meeting, jump to 4:24 to get to the start of his overview comments about the industry.
Reality vs. the Hype of the Drone Industry: Colin Snow
Drone Analyst’s Colin Snow gave a fantastic presentation wherein he went over some of the hype that surrounds the “drone industry.” The biggest elephant in the room was front and center in his presentation: The drone industry is frequently valued anywhere from $2 to 92 billion dollars per year (nearly two orders of magnitude in an estimate should give everyone pause). He tracks 31 independent forecasts of the drone industry and most of these generate totally useless (or even self-contradictory) reports that cost $2 to 6,000 dollars each to read. His poster child for these is an Oppenheimer Report published in February with numbers so variable that no one can even make sense of it. He feels none of these “analysts” actually understand much of the industry.
Mr. Snow discussed the 2013 AUVSI Report The Economic Impact Of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration In the United States which appears to have numerous errors. For example, this report confidently states that the commercial agriculture market is by far the largest segment dwarfing others: “Precision agriculture and public safety will make up more than 90% of the market growth for unmanned aerial systems.” But the reality is that these two sectors are the laggards of the industry!
Another case in point is the Bard College Study on Section 333 (from Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone). This report stated “In the period from August 2015 to December 2015, only 37.8% of exemptions listed a single intended operation, compared to 57.3% in the period from September 2014 to July 2015.” But third party companies are now helping applicants submit their 333 services and there is now rampant “copy-and-paste” FAA Section 333 applications (with over 1,100 drone platform requests by one firm alone). He therefore argued that this data is now an unreliable source of actual UAS commercial operations activity or actual UAS commercial aircraft in use.
There also appears to be lots of sloppy basic math going on in some of these industry assessments. For example, the Bard College Report claims that “the most popular unmanned aircraft maker is DJI, which accounts for two out of three drones listed…” But this isn’t what people are actually using, just what they have asked for in their 333 permit. An inspection of the Commercial N-numbers from drone registration puts DJI units at only 43% of the overall crafts, a large number to be sure, but far from the 70% some have been claiming.
Examples of Practical Uses
Using Drones For Construction Engineering Surveys: Mrs. Heller Gregory
This was a nice presentation of how a small consulting firm has followed the rules (333, Pilots Licenses, etc.) and now successfully uses cheap, “hobby grade” drones like DJI Phantoms and 3DR Iris+ to survey construction sites. Her workflow uses utilizes Pix4D and often makes use of the newest formats and software such as 3D PDFs.
An Overview of Precision Agriculture: Raymond Hunt
Mr. Hunt noted that agricultural production is at something of a crisis. He feels we need to be able to grow more food more sustainably, but traditional approaches typically foster increased erosion and eutrophication. He sees precision agriculture as essentially a way to benefit everyone via more precise application of chemicals onto the landscape.
He ran through some nice examples of how people have historically used precision agriculture (defined as using GPS in association with detailed assessment of crop yields). I particularly liked his example of UAV use in Japan where they are applying fertilizers and pesticides to rice fields that are muddy and hard to navigate. Importantly, much of the supposed hype related to drones and agriculture appears to be overhype. Much of the sensing of NDVI, etc. comes too little too late for farmers hoping to actually respond in time to boost yield.
Drones are flexible and Hunt feels different sensors may be configured to detect pests, plant diseases, weeds, irrigation efficiency, or erosion. But the low hanging fruit for drones in agriculture has already been picked by other technologies currently available to farmers. (Note: Ray later commented that in 2015, 32 Advisors Group conducted a study which concluded drones were the way to go. However, they compared precision agriculture to no precision agriculture, and not precision agriculture to drones versus precision agriculture with current technologies.)
Interestingly he got started down this “drone ag” road 17 years ago via a summer STEM outreach program to local schools, much as we began our CSUCI efforts with our NOAA-funded Crossing the Channel ROV education program.
In yet another data point for my mantra of “what is wrong” with our burgeoning drone practitioner community, Hunt noted that “sensors acquire data, not information, and all the farmers want is the information.” Yep! I couldn’t agree more.
Wimberley Fire Department’s Experience with Drones and Search and Rescue: Gene Robinson
Mr. Robinson has been using drones to assist with EMS efforts in and around San Antonio Texas since their first Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA in 2007. Since then they have been deeply integrating sUAS into their operations. He sees numerous opportunities where the industry can integrate with Fire Departments and other first responders.
Recent flooding in Texas has proved a useful case study in the integration of drones into Search and Rescue efforts. In this 2015 incident, EMS professionals were able to pull in a mix of regular aircraft (helicopters) and drones to safely use various platforms based on the particular need. Even so they still had problems with civilian operators wanting to help, but being totally unfamiliar with the incident command infrastructure and procedures. Most of the problems centered around communication, especially being able to talk with incident command and all the pilots in the area.
“Never let a good disaster go to waste.”
Parallax’s Learning Platforms: Ken Gracey
I was busy talking about the power output of some neat new solar panels from AltaDevices and so missed the start of the Parallax presentation. But in summary they are providing kits for students to learn programming and the fundamentals of drone construction and operation. They offer several robotic kits, but their drone platform is the ELEV-8 version 3. The neat thing with these folks is their focus of a more holistic view of education, including safe operation indoors, assessment tools for teachers, and robust learning outcomes.
Designing a Drone From the Ground Up with Ease of Use as a Core Principal: Orest Pilskalns
Dr. Pilskalns, the CEO of drone manufacturer Skyyfish, has been in business for two years and built their M4 drone around a robust, Graphical User Interface-based mobile app that is intuitive and powerful.
After hearing his talk, I headed over to their booth for a closer inspection of their app and a tour of their M4 drone with Austin Schweitzer:
New Fixed Wing Mapping Drone: the Freya from SmartPlane
From my experience, the “surveying with fixed-wing sUAS” marketplace has been dominated by the eBee from Sensefly for the last two years. They market a more or less turnkey solution with mission planning software, a “safe” foam-bodied plane, and everything you need to go map an area in a single case. Now another manufacturer from Europe–SmartPlanes–is looking to bring their platform to the states. They have priced their unit competitively (about $20,000 all tricked out) to the eBee’s new price point of about $14,000-$17,000. The Freya‘s angle is to be super durable. From its crash-cone nose to the patent-pending durable membrane they coat their airframe with, SmartPlane’s design mantra seems to have been to make this unit hardened and able to crash with minimal impact to the body/components. I would very much like to try this sucker out in the air with my students!
These guys are just in the process of setting up a 20-person shop in Reno, Nevada. This will become their North American HQ.
Legal & Policy Issues
Dromatics-A New Approach to Drone Insurance: Terry Miller
Unmanned Risk Management’s Terry Miller introduced a new model for obtaining and providing insurance from drone flights. They are proposing a small geolocator fob that attaches to a drone and reports real-time conditions and locations to the insurance company. This allows the insurance company to know how you are flying.
While I can think of many potential downsides (who owns this data, it is subpoena-able, etc.), it also has many potential benefits:
- opening up the possibility of a pay as you go model
- coverage on the fly (up your coverage for a day if you have a risky job, lower it after that)
- safer operators could get a cheaper rate
- confirming that the accident actually happened or that failure rates are real
- insurance on demand and with the real-world flight risk correctly estimated
Legally Operating UAS in the National Airspace: Jeffrey Antonelli
Things are changing quickly, but in general Mr. Antonelli sees lots of issues with problematic local and state laws restricting drone activities. He used the case from Chicago that apparently banned operations of drones in the city of Chicago…then didn’t…then did again. This all revolves around Federal Preemption wherein federal authorities exert ultimate jurisdiction over air space (highlighted most recently in the December 17, 2015 FAA Statement on Preemption).
Mr. Antonelli went on to note that it is widely believed that ~90% of existing 333 operators are NOT in compliance with their exemption requirements. This most often is due to not using a licensed pilot and/or violating the 333 requirement of staying at least 500 feet from non-participants.
He went on to highlight his “Top Client Gripes” with 333:
- site-specific COAs take too long (businesses need them in 1-2 days, but FAA takes 2-8 weeks at best)
- new favorable 333 conditions and limitations are not retroactive, e.g.:
- prohibited “yellow areas in sectional chart” removed
- “kitchen sink” UAV list (listed at regulatory docket FAA-2007-3330)
- competing operators not following the rules with little risk of getting caught
- overly restrictive 333 conditions and limitations (e.g. 500 feet distance from non-participant)
FAA Airworthiness Group Update: Steve George
Mr. George had no slides or visuals and had his presentation reviewed by the FAA before it was read out. He clearly wanted us to understand the FAA has been very busy and wants us to know that communication and consistency is important to them.
Highlights included 440,000 sUAS operators have registered their drones with the FAA since the December 21st registration requirements went into effect. This exceeds the entire worldwide fleet of manned aircraft (the number includes both recreation and non-recreational craft).
The FAA is trying to take a Risk-based Approach to Authorization (i.e. to determine how to fly over people safely) and now know that all sUAS shouldn’t be considered identically. This is a notable departure from how the FAA has historically dealt with safety. Once implemented, the FAA’s new rule (expected “sometime in the Spring”) will supposedly get rid of the need for a 333 permit.
The FAA held their first ever FAA symposium on sUAS at Daytona Beach last week.
What I Learned From Chairing an FAA ARC: Nancy Egan
Ms. Nancy Egan is the General Council and lead policy person for 3DR. She recently chaired the FAA Advisory and Rulemaking Committee to help develop new guidance for sUAS operations. Her talk was a bit of a wandering/lessons learned presentation, but had some nice nuggets to ponder such as “We are now nervous about drones, but we were nervous about cameras on phones as well. And we really like our cameras now.”
Ms. Egan feels we need to do a lot of work to bridge the gaps between various sectors of the industry:
- Airman vs. Roboticist
- focus on human (Pilots in Charge) vs. computer
- drives every safety decision, on each side of the issue
- leaves legislators unclear on safety case
- Manned vs. Unmanned
- lines are quickly dissolving as more crossover occurs
ASTM International Committee F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Doug Marshall
This was a bit of a rushed presentation and didn’t focus much on the actual outcomes of the ASTM panels. Perhaps the most interesting outcome from this talk was the fact that after developing rules and guidance for several years, in February of 2015 the FAA issued their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that completely ignored ASTM’s reference consensus standards. To add insult to injury, the FAA could not tell ASTM why they had ignored their years of work because of “ex parte” rules. What the final rule will be is unknown and, depending on comments received, consensus standards for detailed requirements may still be referenced. But we are again left scratching our heads over FAA actions.
Drone Build-A-Thon: Reiner Von Weber
Aerial Sports League has been working with the Hiller Aviation Museum at the San Carlos Airport on the San Francisco Peninsula to launch a series of robot building workshops. Their first one was two weeks ago. These one-day events afford anyone (kids as young a nine and adults as old as 60) the opportunity to construct their own quadcopter. They have designed an analog platform that requires no soldering. A kit runs $400 ($600 with radio transmitter). You can find out more via either the San Francisco Drone School or Drone Sports World.
ASSURE FAA Center of Excellence: James Poss
This was an overview talk for the multi-campus FAA Center for Excellence based at Mississippi State. They have a network of universities in mostly low-population areas of the country with simple landscapes/uncomplicated air space. They appear to be a no-bid contractor for the FAA to do basic research related to drone safety and safe integration into the National Air Space. The federal government gives this network money (on the order of $5 to 10 million per year) and they must in turn raise an equal amount of match from industry. There was much talk of what they will be doing, but appear to have few deliverables at this point based on their description of what they are doing. This seemed to mostly be a sales pitch aimed at getting additional industry partners to join their center/contribute financially to their research. As of now, they have several divisions all of which appear to be very much aeronautical driven and designed to fit neatly into existing FAA buckets:
- Air Traffic Integration
- Control, Communication & Spectrum Management
- Human Factors
- Detect & Avoid
Drone Racing as a Gateway to the wider Drone Industry
Finally, Bruce Parks is trying to be more purposeful and organized with the emerging sport of drone racing and is promoting his newest organization: drone pilots federation. They hope to be more purposeful and organized to argue for drones and drone racing overall.