Photo courtesy of Intel Corp.
Word on the floor of one the largest unmanned vehicle and robotics trade shows was that this year's event looked significantly different than it did just a few years ago. Held this year in Dallas, the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) trade show appeared to include more larger unmanned vehicles, more exhibitors from the commercial market and more companies providing aviation services. Xponential is an event for all autonomous vehicles — from sea to space. But unmanned aircraft system (UAS) products and services were not in short supply this year.
"I've come to Xponential for years now and the difference in this show this year compared to where it was five years ago is just amazing," said Northrop Grumman's Flory B. Ellis, director of business development, global strategy and mission solutions. "And what this show looks like in five years, I can't even wait to see."
Ellis noted that five years ago, the majority of exhibitors were from military entities — and she was not alone in that observation. While the military sector was still represented, it was in the shadow of a commercial sector push. Some executives that R&WI spoke with attributed the evolution to the FAA's release of Part 107, regulations for small UAS. Others said that the UAS industry is growing so rapidly, that companies felt they needed to participate.
Bell Helicopter, for example, was one of several first-time Xponential exhibitors. It took part in Textron's booth; the parent company is a familiar face at Xponential. A model of the Bell V-247 was on display, and Director of Innovation Scott Drennan participated in a VTOL urban mobility panel. Airbus Helicopters Inc. was also in attendance, with President Chris Emerson addressing the crowd at an invite-only reception.
Airbus Group launched a new start-up endeavor during the show called Airbus Aerial. Based in Atlanta, with another base in Europe, the new entity provides digital services to the commercial sector. Airbus Aerial focuses on developing new imagery services to analyze data from drones, satellites, high-altitude aircraft and other sources. The company has appointed Jesse Kallman as Airbus Aerial U.S. president. Kallman has more than 12 years of experience in aviation including performing research at Georgia Tech, a stint at the FAA, a position at commercial UAS company Airware and advocacy with AUVSI.
"Drones are only a piece of a much larger picture for us," said Kallman. "Airbus Aerial brings together a variety of aerospace technologies – including drones and satellites – combines them in a common software infrastructure, and applies industry-specific analytics to deliver tailored solutions to our customers’ biggest challenges."
Data is the new oil. At least, that's what Intel CEO Brian Krzanich's keynote message was. His message is one that he originally brought to the autonomous car industry. This time, he shared it with everyone.
"Today, we think we live in a world flooded with data, but compared to the future, today’s amount of data is relatively small," he wrote in November in an Intel publication. "In 2016, the average person generates 650 MB of data a day – through use of their PCs, mobile phones and wearables. By 2020, projections show that the average person will generate 1.5 GB of data a day. That’s an impressive 200% increase in less than four years – but it pales in comparison to what we’re about to see in autonomous vehicles."
Along with investing $250 million in autonomous driving, Intel has also been scooping up companies that specialize in UAS and data, like the acquisitions of Ascending Technologies and Movidious, respectively. Drone light shows, which Intel has brought to major events at Disney, the Super Bowl and Coachella, would not be possible without Ascending Technologies. (Watch the mini light show Intel put on during Krzanich's keynote at Xponential May 9.)
Data services like this would be driven by data collected during commercial UAS operations, like inspections. Intel demoed a bridge inspection during Krzanich's keynote speech, Todd Graetz spoke of BNSF Railways' initiative for railway inspection during an Xponential panel. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works briefed a small crowd May 8 on its commercial aviation inspection service. VP and GM of the inspection service, John Sheehan, said that the drone Lockheed Martin uses for these inspections is the Stalker eXtended Endurance (XE). Selling something named, "Stalker," he joked, is tough in the commercial market. So, for the inspection services, it's called the Lockheed Martin XE.
"One of the things I really enjoy about working at Lockheed Martin is the breadth of capabilities we have. With the commercial aviation inspection service from within Skunk Works, we're taking that out to our customers. We're drawing on our long history of integrating technology to provide a solution for our customers. For the customers that we're talking about, the challenges that they have are in oil and gas ... long linear infrastructure, environmental inspection, firefighting ... and environmental monitoring."
If Xponential 2017 is any indication, the commercial UAS market will continue to grow, including into verticals where helicopters make their money. Even though a small drone can't rescue anyone on par with a manned rotorcraft, law enforcement agencies are using drones, like Lockheed Martin's Indago, to search for missing persons. Although no small- or medium-sized drone can lift what a Columbia Helicopter's CH-47 can, some can lift almost a ton.
Xponential 2018 is set for Denver, Colorado. Ellis wondered what the show would look like in five years, but it may not take that long to see more significant changes.
"The largest booths, historically, at these trade shows — and I’ve been to a million of them — have been defense contractors," Josh Ziering told R&WI. Ziering is co-founder and chief pilot for Kittyhawk, a commercial UAS software company that is gearing up to launch a flight management solution. Ziering attended Xponential for the first time this year and did not have a booth, but he said he is very familiar with the industry. Despite it being his first time at the show, he said he noticed a difference. "This is the first year I’ve seen really honest to goodness commercial, civilian companies that have big booths. There’s money here, and it’s not [defense] money. So that’s really exciting; there’s a shift happening."