UAS Program Engineer Darshan Divakaran swears that the North Carolina Department of Transportation didn't have acronyms on the mind when the agency first started planning the North Carolina Drone Summit and Flight Expo, or Drone SAFE. Luckily, that acronym matched their vision of an educational exposition focused on the safe piloting of recreational and commercial drones.

The department held the inaugural show last summer after a series of UAV safety workshops and demonstrations throughout the state left their audience asking for more.

"These free workshops were well attended — there were people coming from neighboring states — and we decided that the educational effort should expand to include a broader audience," said Divakaran. "These workshops were great for educating attendees on state and federal regulations, but we were still lacking a national, and global, perspective on UAV technology."

Organizers were ready to declare the event a success if it drew between 100 and 200 attendees. In the end, upwards of 400 people interested in UAV technology attended — some from as far away as the Cayman Islands and Australia. Drone SAFE's first year cemented North Carolina as one of the global leaders in UAV education and outreach.

"North Carolina has become a global leader because of what we know and what we have achieved," Divakaran told Commercial UAV News. "Growth is important to the future integration of this technology and it's still in its infant stages. While there are a lot of agencies and companies holding advancements as proprietary information, our goal is to share. There is no limit to who we will help, who we will collaborate with.

The state DOT has committed to utilizing UAV technology to help manage 80,000 road miles and 13,500 bridges, there have have been advancements in package delivery in the state (including the launch of a hospital pilot program to deliver blood samples across campuses) and the technology has played an important role in the region's recovery from Hurricane Florence.

The state's success in UAV integration and willingness to share their experience has agency leaders fielding calls from around the world on how to kick-start a drone program.

"Every week we get calls from other DOTs and state agencies and we attempt to guide them," said Divakaran. "One of the biggest challenges is that people don't have the patience to adopt this technology properly. Instead of reaching out to other agencies that have been successful, newcomers will sometimes take guidance from companies that are only trying to sell a product. We're trying to focus on education and create a culture where knowledge is shared."

Year two

With the inaugural show finishing with such success, the event would've surely had a positive impact on attendees if it simply updated it's conference topics this year and remained mainly the same. But that's not how North Carolina likes to operate.

"We genuinely tried to take feedback from attendees and exhibitors last year and alter our plan to improve the Drone SAFE experience for everyone," said Divakaran.

This year organizers have added a series of stronger panels and keynote sessions to replace one-off presentations.

"What we heard from folks attending is that they really wanted to have their questions answered and have more opportunities to hear directly from speakers," said Divakaran. "We have also tried to create stronger panels this year by broadening our expert pool to include a more global perspective.

This year's keynote speakers include Jay Merkle, executive director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Air Craft Systems Integration Office, Dr. Marcus Johnson, a deputy lead for the NASA Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge and Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of unmanned systems and robotics.

Last year, Drone SAFE hosted a few live flight demonstrations a day. That will be bumped up this year to every half hour, with additional indoor space for software demonstrations.

This year will include a series of speakers from U.S. military agencies, which Divakaran says have a lot to teach the industry when it comes to proper safety training and certification.

Drone SAFE will also include a STEM initiative this year that will bring 40 to 50 middle school and high school students to the show for a limited tour. This year will be a test to see if there's significant interested from schools in UAV education.

Everything considered, the North Carolina Drone Summit and Flight Expo is well on its way to establishing itself as a premiere UAV education resource.

"I would tell anyone interested in UAV integration to take education more seriously," said Divakaran. "You can believe everything you hear or read online, but conferences like this give you an opportunity to ask questions of agencies like the FAA and NASA directly. I hope everyone attending brings a lot of questions with them — if you do, I'll guarantee you come out having learned something.