The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems 2014 Trade Show (http://bit.ly/1srE8ZH) got underway in Orlando, Florida today, and I’m attending. It’s a privilege to be present representing Westbury – along with 600 exhibitors and more than 8,000 attendees from about 60 countries – at a period when this industry is on the verge of an explosion.
The introductory remarks, given by AUVSI Executive Vice Chairman, Ralph Alderson, highlighted several themes. First, he noted that up until this point, improvement and innovations have come primarily from military users. That dynamic is changing, with commercial use driving innovation. And the economic explosion I noted? Alderson quoted statistics from the AUVSI Economic Report 2013, which forecasts $13 billion in total economic impact in the agriculture sector alone in the first three years, and a total economic impact of $82 billion by 2025.
However, the gating factor for this explosion is the integration by the FAA of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System. To date, the FAA has not permitted commercial use of UAS. The FAA’s Manager of UAS Integration, Jim Williams, struck a promising note in this regard, however, announcing that the FAA is working to expedite some limited commercial operations of UAS before UAS rules are finalized. The full integration is expected in 2015 or 2016.
The first speaker, Representative John Mika, R-FL, did not add much to the conversation, primarily offering tired jokes about politicians and commenting that Washington was the problem not the solution. He provided no insight on either the industry or the legislative process.
His colleague, Representative Frank LoBiondo, R-NJ, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation, on the other hand, provided a more cogent perspective. He emphasized that the greatest risk to the industry in this country, which is currently the acknowledged leader in UAS, is being over-cautious. Nevertheless, he noted that privacy and safety concerns are critical – a major safety incident could undermine the future of the entire industry. Just on Friday, the FAA announced that a commercial passenger jet encountered a UAS close to the Tallahassee airport in March at 2,300 feet.
Between the two politicians, Lt. Gen. Kevin W. Mangum, Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, provided an overview of the Army's soldier-centric strategy and priorities with regard to unmanned systems. In his words, they "want the soldier never to have to go into a fair fight." The Army's latest strategy revolves around Manned/Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T), the synchronized employment of soldiers, manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles, robotics and sensors. The objectives, in a spectacular example of military euphemisms, are improved situational understanding, greater lethality, and enhanced survivability.
In the hall, exhibitors reported a wide range of activity. Those with ancillary products and services indicated that it was important to attend, but that they didn’t expect significant sales. Companies with compelling core offerings reported non-stop activity and sales prospects.
More tomorrow on speakers and Westbury’s perspective on the industry’s prospects. I'll also touch up unmanned ground and sea systems, which are often left in the shadow of their sexier airborne cousin.