Aerial drones, technically referred to as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), have become mainstream far beyond military use, yet those that are involved in this industry are still highly regarded as pioneers of an industry that is still in it’s infancy.
The 2019 Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada was a gathering of CEOs, industry leaders, manufacturers, lobbyists, innovators, educators, and U.S. government officials.
It was obvious from the first plenary that I was surrounded by experts, yet this group was not what most of the general public would expect to find at a drone show. These experts were business leaders, policy makers, engineers, software developers, and public safety officials.
The attendees of the Commercial UAV Expo represented the big box, big business drone community which is one of the four groups that is currently competing for favor in the U.S. airspace.
Nowhere in sight were the racers and hobbyists, and although a few military officials and U.S. Veteran drone pilots were present this show wasn’t for them either! In fact, there were very few small to medium sized business owners (like myself) and other than thermal imaging and 3D modeling, no one was talking about taking pretty pictures and making professional videos with their flying robots.
The big box players full of acronyms and creative puns, which are currently winning in the race to regulate, dominated the stages at the Commercial UAV Expo. NASA, UPS, FAA, DoT, DroneBase, DroneUp, Airbus Aerial, Skyward, AiRXOS, and Wing were just a few. There was even a representative on a panel from the President’s office. Yes, The President!
To the typical working drone pilot, this group is from a different world, yet these are the decision makers in the current and future airspace. Nothing made this more obvious than listening to a panel moderated by Jay Merkle of the FAA of companies (BNSF Railway, CNN, Carolina DOT, and State Farm) that have all received major exemptions and waivers from the FAA.
These waivers have largely been unreachable to the majority of commercial drone operators, most of which have been denied the same privileges that these companies have gained access to such as flight beyond line of site and flight over people.
Key subjects were safety, procedures, and lengthy applications that in some cases have resulted in the first waivers approved of their kind. The FAA reiterated that they are still in the crawl phase of their “Crawl, Walk, Run” philosophy, and although it was nice to hear these companies speak to the FAA as if they had moved mountains for their businesses, there wasn’t much of a plan discussed to roll out these opportunities for companies that don’t have the lobbying power of these big box industry leaders.
The 2019 Commercial UAV Expo also highlighted education with an area hosting a dozen booths for colleges and Universities and an early morning “University Roundtable Discussion” for educators to discuss challenges in drone education.
There was a pre-show flight day experience for drone mapping, night flight operation for inferred training in the sky, and a full track for drones in public safety led by some of the industry’s most experienced fire fighters, police officers, and other public safety officials.
There were also hosted events throughout the expo by Women And Drones an organization that is working hard to get more women involved in this male dominated industry.
The showroom floor was among the largest internationally for a drone show and there was no shortage of large industrial drones. In fact, if one only had an expo pass you may think that this was actually the “Industrial UAV Expo”. LIDAR, LIDAR, LIDAR and heavy lifters to handle these expensive yet effective units covered almost half of the showroom floor.
Autel had the only flight cage on the floor while Skydio grabbed everyone’s attention with the new Skydio 2 on display and Yuneec showcased their full range of payloads for the H520.
Software companies competing for the mapping space such as Pix4D, DroneDeploy, and Esri had sales people pushing hard to demonstrate new products, while dozens of accessory companies showcased products such as parachutes, lights, cases, landing pads, and hundreds of drone parts to customize your gear.
If one didn’t know better they may think that everyone in the entire drone industry was at this show, but there was one player that was obviously missing, and they are the biggest player in the game. Majority leader of the drone industry DJI didn’t have a booth, a speaker, a panel, or any representation beyond retailers that displayed their full line of drones choc full of accessories at their booths.
By far though, the most valuable part of the show is the networking and the access to people that one would never be in the same room as otherwise. A simple lunch put me at a table with an engineer that is redeveloping energy efficient engines for secret aircrafts of the future.
Getting a coffee introduced me to someone from the Federal DoT that is hiring students out of college to be pilots throughout the nation. An afterparty hosted by Hogan-Lovells and the Commercial Drone Alliance put me in the room with the top speakers from the panels and helped me to connect to some of the most influential leaders in the big box drone industry.
The 2019 Commercial UAV Expo was an opportunity to see an industry evolve through the lens of the decision makers, inventors, and corporate leaders.
Although, there is room for the expo to grow with the inclusion of more sessions that would interest the actual day to day operators and entrepreneurs (a track in photography and video production, for example would perhaps bring out more people in the largest sector in the industry) it was still a great opportunity to connect with people from all over the United States that have an interest in supporting the advancement of aviation through unmanned aerial vehicles.