The future of UAVs in America – Takeaways from the WBToi UAV Conference

I recently attended the WBToi conference in Stillwater, Oklahoma on Oct. 29th through 30th, which I posted about previously (WBToi Open Innovation forum in Stillwater starts today!). This conference was put on by the World’s Best Technologies organization, which puts on numerous annual events to showcase the work of technologists and scientists for entrepreneurs and investors who are seeking commercialization opportunities.

The focus of this particular conference was on unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but also included several presentations on Open Innovation.

I had a purpose in being at the conference and am pursuing the licensing of specific aerospace technologies for a group of US venture capital funds. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about those more in the future, as the project progresses.

Because of my work, I did have the great pleasure of spending much of the conference and after-hours events in the company of NASA scientists who are at the top of their respective fields, worldwide, and who get a chance to carry out leading-edge research as a routine part of their daily work. It was amazing talking to them.

Yes, “rocket scientists” really are that smart!

We also enjoyed remarks from Billy J Gililland, President of General Atomics, Systems Integration LLC, William F. Lyons, Director, Global R&D Strategy, Boeing, and Stephen McKeever, Secretary of Science and Technology, State of Oklahoma.

WBToi imageWhile this post is focused on the UAS content, I also very much enjoyed the presentation by Oklahoma’s own Colin Cumming, CEO, SensiQ Technologies, about his experience licensing and commercializing several major technologies.

My quick, personal, highly subjective takeaways from the event on the state of the Unmanned Aerial Systems industry (in no particular order) were several:

  1. UAVs are the future of remote sensing and data collection technology. They’re cheaper than satellites; can be 1000% more plentiful and accessible; and high-altitude, long-endurance solar-powered UAVs are just around the corner. These UAVs will offer budget-minded institutions, organizations and entrepreneurs with satellite-like capabilities for a tiny fraction of the cost of satellite sensing. The result will be a massive wave of new data sources, new data, new approaches to old problems and lots of new science and new businesses.
  2. A high degree of automation is being designed and developed into UAVs and UAS. The result will be a feedback loop of increasingly easy, powerful and versatile UAS being available to a larger number of operators. UAVs that can automatically follow a pattern written with a finger on a tablet, on an app integrated with Google Maps, and then land themselves, are already here. And the UAVs are taking high resolution photos that the software can then automatically stitch together. UAVs that follow their operators around via a wristwatch beacon have also already arrived. The possibilities for innovation in automation are staggering.
  3. The FAA’s National Airspace (NAS) regulations really are a problem. Basically everyone, except the FAA, agrees that not having published rules for commercial UAVs at this late date is a national problem. There was a recent decision (U.S. aviation safety board says FAA can enforce rules on drones) reinforcing the FAA’s right to regulate UAVs, so these rules are crucial. Congress has mandated that the FAA publish their rules by the end of 2015, but there is great fear that the FAA will fail to meet this deadline. And this will hobble the UAS industry in the US. In other nations- especially Canada, China, and Australia – there are already commercial operators who are rapidly gaining experience, expertise and technical advantage over their American rivals. We cannot allow this to continue.
  4. Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Technology, used his luncheon remarks to praise the industry, criticize the FAA and point out that most UAVs operate below 10,000 feet and not near airports. This means that most UAVs are, literally, never in the same airspace as typical commercial airplanes, which take off and land at airports and are otherwise flying above 10,000 feet. And the best applications of UAVs are below 10,000 ft, including precision agriculture, mining, pipeline and power line inspection, emergency response, wildfire monitoring, etc. There are good reasons to think that most uses of UAVs will have a very low likelihood of conflict with current commercial traffic, even if the regulation were lax, which it won’t be.
  5. Oklahoma has a great opportunity to be a world leader in this technology. Actually, Oklahoma could become the “Silicon Valley of UAVs.”
    • Oklahoma has one of a very few FAA-designed UAV test areas in the nation: Test facility at Chilocco
    • The state has existing military infrastructure for the deployment, pilot training and maintenance of UAVs by their most prolific and experienced users, the US military. Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City has just become the military’s designated UAV repair center for Predator and Reaper drones
    • Nation-leading UAV training programs at Oklahoma State University
    • Enthusiasm for the industry as a diversification of the state’s economy that builds on existing strengths
    • A ready market of local buyers including buyers in oil and gas, pipelines and agriculture, as well as military and other outlets
    • Additional resources the state has marshaled in support of the industry: Oklahoma – A State wide approach towards unmanned aerial systems
  6. WBTOI-SphereUAVThere are brand new hardware and software technologies emerging around UAVs that will make them even more useful and user-friendly.
    • ADS-B integration into the NAS; ADS-B is a hardware radio beacon installed on aircraft that communicate the aircraft’s position and other information to all other nearby aircraft that are similarly equipped and to ground stations. ADS-B is part of the FAA’s national NextGen air traffic controller system and the FAA has mandated that all aircraft will be broadcasting with ADS-B by 2020. Many fleets and individual owners are already installing. UAVs will certainly be among the aircraft using this technology and the greater situational awareness and automation that ADS-B will bring could be a big advantage for UAVs versus how they are operated now.
    • High performance solar panels, batteries and possibly fuel cells will all contribute to the endurance of UAVs, which will dramatically increase their utility. Most current small UAVs are only able to stay aloft for as long as a batter charge lasts, which can be a little as 10 minutes even for commercial UAVs. Better energy technologies will change the nature of low-cost UAVs and allow the lower-cost vehicles to be much more useful.
  7. As usual, software is eating the world. Most of the innovations likely to have the biggest impact of the usability and utility of UAVs will come from the software, the on-board and off-board processing power, and the bandwidth available to the UAV. We are in the early stages of fully automated self-managed UAVs that can take off, carry out their duties and return to their bases to be recharged, without ever seeing or interacting with a human being. This is the brave new world of UAVs.
  8. Both the CEOs of General Atomics and Boeing R&D agreed that because the US military has pioneered and used UAVs so extensively, the US is firmly out in front on UAS technology and has an opportunity to stay out in front. But having commercial access to the NAS will be crucial to seeing economic impact, rather than just military superiority.

I’m grateful, once again, that I have a job where I can attend conferences on leading-edge technology and interact with innovators who are leading their areas and industries!

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This blog is dedicated to providing advice, tools and encouragement from one entrepreneur to another. I want to keep this practical and accessible for the new entrepreneur while also providing enough sophistication and depth to prove useful to the successful serial entrepreneur. My target rests somewhere between the garage and the board room, where the work gets done and the hockey stick emerges.