AUVSI: Big Brother Emerges And The FAA Speaks


I wasn’t precisely counting, but at this year’s AUVSI event, there seemed to be more companies hawking a particular kind of software meant to integrate, analyze and order the oceans of data and imagery that all these flying eyes in the sky are pumping into various networks. And everything is tied into what’s commonly called the internet of things. Flying machines are just another sensor. Your refrigerator will be able to communicate with one of Amazon’s drones and automatically order milk and cottage cheese. All you’ll have to do is pick it up from the landing pad on the patio.

At the show in New Orleans, a well-known company called Harris was aggressively handing out handbills for a product called Corvuseye, which it claims can gather critical intelligence “over a city-size area—day and night.” One line in the handbill caught my attention: “Using automated tools to establish the interconnected patterns of life.” In other words, it’s trending toward artificial intelligence that will figure out what time you go to work, what route you usually take and when the Amazon drone needs to deliver milk, all automatically because it knows you better than you know you. It will figure that out at the mega and the micro level, I’m sure.

It reminds me a little of that security conglomerate in RoboCop; all full of good intentions, but incapable of controlling the dark side of its machines. At shows such as this, no one really discusses the ethical and legal issues of such things, although I did attend a seminar on counter-drone technology. It mainly concerned itself with the technical and legal what-ifs, not breach of privacy issues or an automated, self-aware system evolving into the capability of warrantless search. Which is to say this technology has massive potential for abuse of the sort that just evolves in slow motion with no one noticing or objecting because everyone is enthralled with the tech. For as promising as it is, it bears close watching, lest we find ourselves in a surveillance society. Or more of one than we’ve already signed up for.

Then there’s the downright absurdity of some of the apps. With a completely straight face, I filmed this segmentof a company building drones that they say can deliver coffee for $3 per trip, including keeping the java warm enroute. At some point, is it so unreasonable to expect the harried city dweller to just plug in the ^%$*ing percolator? I was sort of thinking that. To be fair, the company also sees their drones as deliverers of medicine and other high-value goods, which makes tolerable sense to me. Most of the drone applications are trending toward survey, inspection, agriculture and industrial ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Burn that term into your brain. It’s tossed around in the drone world in every other sentence.

Where is Everybody?

As with most conventions, the general session at AUVSI is held in one of those cavernous, over-chilled ballrooms with enough room to seat thousands. In the afternoon session on Tuesday, once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I scanned the hall. It wasn’t even half full. I’d say it might have been a third full, with acres of empty seats.

Last year, it was standing room only at Atlanta. What the heck is going on? Sitting next to me was Merritt Patterson, a maker of drone engines. He’s been attending this event for 10 years and had an answer. “It’s gone global now,” he said, “there are shows all over the world.” And indeed there are and Patterson told me both exhibitors and attendees are getting pickier about where and what to attend. None of these shows are exactly cheap to attend. At the least, if you’re an AUVSI member, attendance costs $899 for an all-access pass or $349 to get into the exhibit hall. Non-members pay more. Think about that next time you’re carping about the price of AirVenture tickets. Further, some people I spoke to think the industry and events that promote it are going more vertical. Sixty percent of companies showing at AUVSI are aviation-related. I won’t be surprised to see more, smaller shows devoted exclusively to UAS and even a smaller AUVSI show, despite forecasted explosive growth.

Success and Failure

When I was talking with Miles O’Brien on Tuesday, I remarked that the boss I’d least like to have is John Chambers. He’s the former hard-charging CEO of Cisco Systems who’s now consulting in the unmanned segment. He bounded on stage like a Ninja, sans the stealthy silence. In a short talk, he buried the audience in a nonstop, rapid-fire paean to digitization and a future for automation that he predicts will reach an inflection point in 2017.

Since he comes from a sales background, I’m not surprised. But he made the valid point that many companies seeking their survival and prosperity in the bold new autonomous world will fail not because they don’t develop products or understand the technology but because they fail to master the transition to a fully digitized economy. Not surprisingly, Chambers believes we aren’t fully in that economy yet.

Sweeping his hand toward the crowd, Chambers predicted that 40 percent of the companies represented in the room would fail. You could quibble with the number, but the sentiment is about right, in my view. I can’t help but wonder if GoPro, the 800-pound gorilla of the action cam world, will be one of them. Competitors are not only producing better, easier-to-use cameras, they’re attaching them to gyro-stabilized platforms with centimeter-capable positioning. We’ve been hearing about a drone from GoPro for months, but same was conspicuously absent from their booth here in New Orleans. It supposed to appear sometime this year, but we heard that last year. Right next door to GoPro was SkyeIntelligence, a Chinese upstart with a great camera and auto following. See the video here.My Phantom 2, which fits a GoPro Hero4 to a Zenmuse platform, is now all but obsolete, given newer models with integrated cameras better than the Hero. GoPro may need to pedal faster or risk being buried.

The FAA Speaks

I was bemused by FAA Admin Michael Huerta’s speech at Xponential. The stage was set up runway style, so most speakers walked the stage, eschewing a podium or notes. That had giant screens in the footlights to help with that. Huerta, on the other hand, stood behind a podium installed at almost the extreme back of the stage, with a big FAA shield on the front. I couldn’t help but think of the word redoubt.

Huerta, I think, is well aware that the FAA is not much admired by the AUVSI crowd. The U.S. autonomous flight industry considers itself a world leader in innovation, but it feels intensely stifled by FAA foot-dragging on regulatory finality. Many companies are miffed that they’ve had to go to Canada or the UK to conduct testing and in his speech, John Chambers said the French government has so embraced autonomous technologies, that France has become a world leader in new startups, outpacing the U.S.

I give the FAA props for standing up a new government/industry drone committee, but it should have done that at least two years ago and probably four or five years ago, at least in wire frame form. It’s not like no one shouldn’t have seen this coming. I haven’t heard a plausible theory to explain why the FAA has moved at such a glacial pace, but no one denies that it has, including Huerta himself. He said the agency has to learn to move at the speed of Silicon Valley, not the speed of government. With the coming revision of FAR 23, itself another endlessly delayed change, there’s a fresh breeze supposedly blowing through 800 Independence Ave. All I can say it we’ll have to see where we are a year from now. Part 107’s integration will be a bellwether, I hope.