Friday, August 16, 2013

Even with a ton of drone regulations, there was a ton of innovation at the SUSB Expo

An MLB Company representative shows the company's Super BAT's camera gimbal system to an audience member during the SUSB Expo, in San Francisco, CA.

It's not very often you get the chance to watch the birth of a multi-billion dollar industry firsthand. But if we are to believe the Association for Unmanned Vehicles and Systems International (AUVSI) economic report, which estimates the unmanned aviation industry should reach $82 billion by 2025, that's exactly what happened at the first-ever small business expo for unmanned aircraft, the SUSB Expo, in San Francisco.

"It's like being in Steve Job's garage," said Agriflight's Bruce Parks, as reported by Robohub's Andra Keay.

Certainly there are similarities between the evolution of personal computers, which were initially developed by hobbyists and computer clubs, to small unmanned aircraft, which are being developed by "Makers" and shared in online open-source communities. But Jobs and Steve Wozniak never had to struggle against a public that was so concerned about privacy and safety, and so misinformed about the technology.

It certainly took the industry off-guard, as AUVSI Executive Vice President Gretchen West told the expo.

The crowd was all too familiar with the restrictive legislation to come out of privacy fears in Texas, Oregon, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. Wilson was one of the 23 people to speak over the two days of the conference, July 25 and 26, at the Golden Gate Club on the San Francisco Presidio. She was one of two women to speak, and one of three people who talked about how public perception was affecting unmanned aircraft adoption.

Chad Partridge,  VP of operations at 2D3 Sensing, compared the problems facing the nascent small unmanned systems industry more similarly to problems the automobile industry faced when it first started. Before cars came along, streets were regarded as a public space where children could play without regard to safety. When automobiles were first adopted, safety concerns clashed with economic reality.

I was the other presenter who spoke about public perception, and how this growing cottage industry might be able to change it. Part of the answer is simple public outreach, which can educate the public on unmanned technology while still providing a platform where legitimate privacy concerns can be addressed.

Some of this can be accomplished via STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education outreach with robots and robotic aircraft, which is part of the work I do for the National Science Foundation grant EnLiST, at the University of Illinois. It's well-known that we have a leaky "STEM pipeline," where students fall through the cracks in P-16 STEM education, such that only a small fraction go on to earn college STEM degrees.

Of more than 4 million 9th graders in 2001, only 167,000 were expected to finish with a STEM degree by 2011, according to the NCES Digest of Education Statistics. And according to the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science And Technology (PCAST), the United States needs 1 million more STEM grads over the next decade to maintain its status as an international leader in science and technology.

In solving the STEM pipeline with drones education outreach, you also end up with a group of students who are capable of making informed policy decisions concerning unmanned technologies. They're also capable of informing others about drones (especially their parents).

The consultancy looks for transdiciplinary research opportunities where drones can provide cost-effective data collection. But another goal of this research consultancy is to provide public outreach. To this end, we recently produced the public UAVs Pros Cons symposium at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, where citizens and experts could discuss issues and network with other experts in STEM fields and electronic privacy and surveillance.

In both talks, I used my handy pie-chart, which breaks down the projected economic impact of unmanned aircraft by 2015 (pending commercial use regulations, of course).

This is a useful chart, because it accurately represents how drones will be used commercially. The single biggest domestic market for unmanned aircraft is likely to be agriculture, either spraying crops, monitoring crops, or both.

Because the greatest potential near-term moneymaker is reducing inputs and increasing outputs for farms, that's where most drones are likely to appear. And that's where many of SUSB Expo participants seemed to have placed their eggs.

Chris Anderson, explained 3D Robotics' strategy for developing drones for agriculture.

Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, is very familiar with the hobbyist and recreational side of unmanned aircraft, having founded the open-source UAV community His company caters to, and also relies on, that community of open-source software and hardware developers of unmanned systems. 3D Robotics is now pivoting ever so slightly to develop agricultural applications for these devices.

Part of the attraction to agriculture, naturally, is the huge market potential. But Anderson also mentioned another motivation: when you're flying over private land, far away from other people, the regulatory Gods might perhaps give you more latitude to operate.

Agriflight's Parks displayed an unmanned aircraft and ground control station, all of which was designed around the specific purpose of providing agriculture intelligence.

An Agriflight representative demonstrates the company's custom ground control station (GCS).
Agriflight's current unmanned aircraft.
Ken Giles, a U.C. Berkley professor of agricultural engineering, presented his research on the real-world benefits of unmanned aircraft like the Yamaha R-Max, which has seen commercial success as a mechanism to distribute pesticides in Japan. Approximately a third of the rice fields in Japan currently are serviced by this remote-controlled (but not autonomous) helicopter.

Giles, like many others in this new industry, found incredible difficulty working within the current regulatory structure, even to accomplish very simple tasks. The Yamaha R-Max was designed to distribute chemical pesticides, but current FAA regulations prohibit unmanned aircraft from dropping most anything, even with a Certificate of Authorization (COA).

After much negotiation, FAA representatives finally allowed the U.C. Berkley crew to drop a liquid from the helicopter. But only if that liquid was water, and only after Giles' research team had done the math to find out what kind of force that water would have when it impacted an object or person (turned out to be similar to a light rain shower).

Within the limited scope of those permissions, Giles couldn't directly study the efficacy of pesticide dispersal via the low-altitude helicopter. Instead his team had to attach color-changing paper to the crops.

Giles had some interesting findings despite these restrictions. For large-scale farms like the ubiquitous corn and soy fields of the Midwest, manned, turbine-powered aircraft have the cost advantage for the foreseeable future. Yet the remote-controlled helicopter was much more efficient for distributing chemicals over small, specialty crops than any existing alternative. That was especially the case with crops that need to be planted on uneven terrain.

This was the other strong, unifying message of the conference: innovation in the face of strict regulations.

It's not just that commercial unmanned aviation is essentially outlawed. There's other U.S. regulations, such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), that can stifle innovation at home. ITAR works against small unmanned systems developers not only because it limits what you can export, but it makes developers fundamentally shift their business strategy to accommodate the regulations.

Aerovel President Tad McGeer

In the words of Tad McGeer, a founding member of Insitu Group, ITAR "forces you to become an arms dealer."

The Insitu Group is credited with making one of the most successful unmanned aircraft of all-time: the Scaneagle. This UA has seen the most use above battlefields, but it was originally designed to help fishermen spot Bluefin tuna in the Atlantic.

McGeer is now the president of Aerovel, a company he founded in 2006. For the SUSB Expo, McGeer showed demo video of his company's flagship aircraft, the VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) Flexrotor. The aircraft features a main wing and v-tail, similar to other fixed-wing aircraft.

Yet the tail on the flexrotor folds into the body, enabling the aircraft to take off vertically like a rocket. When it's time to land, the aircraft pitches up until it stalls, the tail folds into the body, and the propeller provides thrust to allow the Flexrotor to float back to the ground in a vertical position.

Aerovel designed the Flexrotor as a solution for "weather monitoring, geological survey, and imaging reconnaissance." It's meant to be versatile, but also low-cost, which should give it an advantage in the market.

Insitu's Scaneagle costs around $2,000 an hour to operate. At that price, McGeer explained, it's actually cheaper to hire a Cessna, which means manned aircraft may continue to have the advantage in many applications. His hope is that the Flexrotor's price will enable Aerovel to accommodate a variety of niche markets where unmanned aircraft could excel.

Another great innovation revealed during the SUSB Expo was the world's smallest unmanned aerial LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging). For those unfamiliar with how LiDAR works, essentially lasers are directed at a target, and sensors read the reflected light to determine the distance to that target. It is frequently used to create 3D models of terrain for use in mapping, autonomous vehicle navigation, and in geological and archeological studies.

Wolfgang Juchmann, director of sales and marketing for LiDAR systems developer Velodyne, mapped the SUSB Expo conference room using one of their products. Then, he showed a video of the same LiDAR system mounted to a multirotor UAV, which mapped part of Qualcomm Stadium (home, of course, to the San Diego Chargers).

There are some indications that the regulatory situation is improving. Ted Wierzbanowski, a retired USAF colonel and former UAS program manager at AeroVironment (which manufactured the successful RQ-11B Raven), briefed the SUSB Expo on some of the latest efforts to draw up UAS rules in the U.S.

Wierzbanowski also was the chair of the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) F-38 UAS Standards Committee, which was charged with establishing "minimum safety, performance, and flight proficiency requirements," among other duties. If the rules proposed by F-38 are adopted, the process to authorize flying a small unmanned aircraft could be as simple as clicking off boxes on an online form.

ASTM F-38 recently submitted a draft of these proposed rules to the FAA, which recommended that UAS flights become regulated based on location and weight. Small unmanned aircraft weighing two kilograms and under could fly over populated areas, while aircraft between two and nine kilograms could fly only over sparsely populated areas. Unmanned aircraft between nine and 25 kilograms would be permitted to fly only over rural areas.

From Wierzbanowski's vantage point in the rule-making process, it's not the Federal Aviation Administration that's holding up UAS integration. "In this particular case, it's the bureaucracy" working above the FAA that is concerned about privacy, he said.

Even given the political and regulatory atmosphere here in the states, San Francisco proved to be the ideal location for the first ever conference for small business applications of unmanned systems. Of all the states in the Union, California stands to benefit the most from the drone industry ($2.3 billion in economic impact by 2017, according to AUVSI). And out of all the places in California, Silicon Valley has perhaps the greatest concentration of human and venture capital to produce drone innovations.

The day after the conference, I made a pilgrimage to the Computer History Museum, where I found the first ever Apple computer. It seemed so very simple -- just an assortment of  components on a single circuit board, screwed into a wooden box (Wood! Can you imagine that?). Yet its elegant PCB traces, IC layout, and handcrafted case (which bore the signature "Woz"), hinted ever so slightly at the design ethos that would make Apple iconic.

I took a picture. Then, I stood back, and wondered if I hadn't just seen something as remarkable just a day earlier.

More photos, and videos of all 23 presenters, are available on the SUSB Expo website. 

A gimbal-equipped octocopter at the SUSB Expo, hanging off the back of a UAS command truck.