This year's XPONENTIAL conference went virtual, and Lux had the chance to attend and interact during many of the sessions. The conference covers "all things unmanned" but has a heavy focus on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including drones. Here are a few key trends and takeaways from the conference:
1. Consumer acceptance of drones and robots surged during the COVID-19 pandemic
Some of the most high-profile drone and robot developers like Wing, Boston Dynamics, and Zipline talked about the amazing response the general public has had to each company's pilot programs. Wing, which started a drone delivery pilot in rural Virginia last year, said the community response to the company's drone service was very positive. Residents sometimes order goods from local shops up to three times a day, and overall demand increased 500% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Boston Dynamics also had the chance to deploy its robots during the pandemic, helping Boston hospitals with COVID-19 screening. The company's CEO said that every patient was given the option to do a screening with a human or with the company's Spot robot, and every single one chose the robot. Similarly, Zipline founder Keenan Wyrobek emphasized the positive reaction to the company's medical delivery drones in rural areas of Africa after they started delivering COVID-19 test samples in those communities.
2. Adverse weather conditions remain a big hurdle for reliable drone operations
There is a big difference between drones that are made to fly only in ideal weather conditions and drones that are built to withstand all weather conditions. Keenan explained that bad weather was the most unanticipated challenge when the company set out to build a drone service for emergency deliveries. The company now blasts its drones with 130 km/hr winds and simulated rain during testing to make sure they can withstand the worst conditions. In another talk, SkyGrid's Chief Software Architect Ali Husain detailed the company's multidrone mission software platform. One of the modules in this platform analyzes the airspace before any mission and considers factors like hyperlocal weather conditions so the operator can plan accordingly. Rather than utilizing expensive (but robust) drones like those from Zipline, operators using SkyGrid can utilize cheaper drones and use the intelligence in SkyGrid's platform to avoid bad weather.
3. A large ecosystem of players are making progress in integrating drones into national airspaces
Two major technologies that will be required to integrate drones into the national airspace are Remote ID and Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM). Remote ID is being proposed by ASTM as a standard that will require drones to use wireless communication to share identification and location information. The basic idea is like a license plate on a car, which will allow the public and law enforcement to positively identify drones that are flying in an illegal or unsafe manner. UTM is a larger platform that utilizes Remote ID along with other facets like airspace management, flight deconfliction, and collision avoidance. Service providers like GE's AirXOS are already offering UTM platforms to limited operations like oil and gas companies but are working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to incorporate UTM in future regulations. Both UTM and Remote ID integrate existing sensor technologies (like ground-based radar) and communication technologies (like cellular networks, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth) into the larger solution.
Overall, the conference highlighted the importance of partnerships in moving unmanned systems forward. Many of the panels featured representatives from startups, large companies, regulators, and local officials – all working together to develop pilot programs and work toward developing the infrastructure to scale these technologies even further.