While new products like the Elios 2 and AtlasNest debuted at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL 2019, there were numerous other topics that dominated conversations throughout the event. As is often the case, developments that will have a major impact on the commercial drone industry for the rest of 2019 and beyond were discussed during sessions, on the floor and beyond.

Experts and visionaries from across the space took the stage and engaged in discussions at XPONENTIAL to detail how and where they’ve seen the technology make a difference. We caught up with a handful of them to discuss what such developments will mean for the industry as a whole.


From Gatwick to Switzerland and Beyond

Incidents involving drones like the one that occurred at Gatwick airport to shut down the facility are top of mind for people inside and outside the industry. That was part of the reason that conversations about what it means to determine whether or not a drone represents a threat took place throughout the event. What was especially telling was to see how such developments are becoming part of the effort to enable a true UTM system to ensure both manned and unmanned aircraft can safely share the sky.

“What you have to realize is that Gatwick got all the headlines, but there have been over 10 shutdowns at other airports since then,” said David Hose, CEO at AirMap. “It’s the reason that efforts to create a UTM system are ultimately about making a safety case for the technology. Enabling awareness will allow the technology to make sense at scale and ensure manned and unmanned aircraft can operate in the same airspace in a totally safe manner.”

Operating in this manner is something that’s currently happening in Switzerland, which has become one of the world leading locations for the development of core technology and high-end applications for drones. Switzerland’s efforts to safely integrate manned and unmanned aircraft have created a model around what U-space could look like across Europe and the entire world.

During one of the keynote discussions, the topic of what airports want and need came up, and it ultimately comes down to the detection and mitigation of drones. However, mitigation is complicated, which underscores why the creation of a UTM system that can facilitate safe operations in the airspace for aircraft of all types is so important.


Urban Air Mobility and 5G

The Bell Nexus air taxi was probably the highlight of the show floor, partly because attendees could actually get into the vehicle to experience what it would be like to fly in it. It also generated attention because it’s the eventual future of drone technology that gets everyone excited. Exactly how it’s going to be enabled is an issue that goes beyond regulation and hardware though.

“Connectivity and 5G will change the operational models for drones, and we’re already seeing that happen in a big way, said Mariah Scott, President at Skyward, a Verizon company. “5G is set to be in 30 cities by the end of this year, and the benefits that enterprises will be able to see from that are considerable. Operational control doesn’t scale without this kind of connectivity, and the maturation of 5G and IoT ecosystems is going redefine how various enterprises leverage and deploy drone technology.”

Companies like Skyward are more focused on enterprise drone operations in the 5G-connected future than they are on how vehicles like the Bell Nexus air taxi will function in them, but many of the eight “currencies” of 5G line up with what it will mean for such vehicles to operate within interconnected IoT ecosystems. While there is still plenty of value that can and is being unlocked with 4G, the future of urban air mobility will depend on the powerful and reliable communications that 5G represents.


Machine Learning and AI

The exponential growth of drone technology has been an overt theme for XPONENTIAL ever since it debuted, but PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen talked about that topic in a different way when he took the stage to debut and showcase PrecisionAnalytics Energy. This new product is a complete aerial mapping, modeling, and inspection platform that uses the latest generation of artificial intelligence and machine intelligence to automate analysis of aerial data.

“We’re seeing exponential growth because of the machine learning and AI capabilities that are utilized in these new tools,” Chasen told Commercial UAV News. “These tools are replacing what was by nature a very inexact process so that instead of a patchwork of information, we have high-resolution data that provides management with the insight they need to make decisions.”

The way in which AI and machine learning could reshape entire industries is a theme we’ve explored in detail, and the value they represent can be quantified. For one top 50 American utilities, PrecisionHawk’s drone services increased the areas of concern identified by 42%. Automated UAV technology and machine learning computer vision analysis of collected images are here, and their arrival could help fulfill the potential of the technology that so many have been talking about for years now.


Into the Mainstream

Since so many of the speakers and attendees at XPONENTIAL talk about and think about drone technology every day, it can be easy to forget that the general population can still be somewhat skeptical of the technology. While much progress has been made in this area, many are concerned about how drones can impact the way in which people exercise their rights to free speech, protest, and other lawful activities. Thankfully, companies such as Cape are helping police departments like the Chula Vista PD deploy the technology in a way that makes sense for those organizations while also addressing and calming concerns about how the technology is and is not being used.

“Our goal was always to move drone operations into the mainstream, and creating awareness is everything,” said Chris Rittler, CEO at Cape. “That awareness allowed the Chula Vista PD to utilize their drone in the way that they have, and that transparency really impacts the public perception of the technology. All of that is possible because everything is connected, and the applications can only get more powerful from here. There are hundreds of use cases now, and that’s about to be thousands.”

The Chula Vista PD has pioneered the concept of how drones can be used as first responders, and such applications are changing the way in which people think about the technology. That change will revolutionize how departments of all sizes and professionals in various industries will be able to adopt the technology to positively impact public perception. That change will help drive the exponential growth of the technology and drone industry as a whole.

There were plenty more highlights and developments that came out of XPONENTIAL though. Check out some of the pictures, quotes and links below, or head over to the #auvsiXPO hashtag.