The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is an organization that is devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. Their XPONENTIAL event convenes the largest global community of leaders in intelligent robotics, drones and unmanned systems, and it’s taking place in New Orleans from May 2nd-May 5th.

While this is the first year that the Commercial UAV News team has covered the event, we’ve already heard from several speakers and attendees about how much it has grown over just the past few years. The event covers any and every unmanned application across land, sea and air, but the growth of the event isn’t due to such a wide scope but instead to the advances in technology that have in turn created countless opportunities.

In covering XPONENTIAL, our focus was around learning how UAVs have and will make an impact in the markets that we’re focused on, and even though the event doesn’t really kick off until Tuesday, there was still plenty to see and hear on Day 1. What’s below is a quick summary of what we were able to see and experience, but keep in mind what’s here is only a small sample of the educational tracks that ran throughout the day.

We’ll have plenty more insights from upcoming sessions and the show floor in future updates.


UAS Propulsion: New Developments, Research and Pathways Toward Improved Performance was one of the first sessions of the day, and the panel showcased different propulsion systems while also laying out the impact around how UAVs perform with these various solutions. The session featured Jeff Ratcliffe, John Nevadomsky, Karen Swider-Lyons, Len Louthan, Leonid Tartakovsky, Michael Kass and Michael Vick. Each of the presenters took the stage to talk through the many different applications of drones that are impacted by these choices in propulsion systems, and also discussed their main challenges as they relate to engine reliability as well as trends they’ve noticed.

Exactly how propulsion systems will change over the next few years was something each of the panelists touched on, and many have different visions of what the future will look like. Swider-Lyons is particularly bullish around the development of hydrogen fuel cells, but most recognized the need for a non-conventional propulsion technology to come to the forefront.

While some question how much efficiency we’ll be able to get from systems that by their very nature have to be very small, Tartakovsky mentioned the flight of the Golden Plover, a bird that flies for 88 straight hours of at least 2,500 miles, all on what is probably no more than 3 ounces of fuel to illustrate to the audience what is possible. It was a reminder not only of the power that can be packed into such tiny packages, but also how much potential remains to be explored.


The Solutions to Increase Control and Productivity in Mining and Quarrying Activities session was headed by Xavier Perrot, the CEO and Co-Founder Mining Topographic Survey and Imaging (MTSI). The presentation focused on the benefits of new technologies and how they’ve changed the approach professionals like Perrot can and do take.

Perrot started by describing the evolution of deliverables in this field, as he showed the audience what sort of data tools were able to gather in the past, and how they compare to the sort of info we can gather now. As you can probably imagine, the pictures and data we have now are far, far more detailed and nuanced than what could be gathered only a few years ago, much less decades ago. Most of his focus was around what he called a 4D world, which boiled down to advances as they related to monitoring, security, control and optimization. All of these developments allow professionals to get a real-time look at a site, and that info can influence the decisions they make.

Ultimately though, his talk came down to the benefits that UAVs can provide when it comes to safety, speed and manpower. Instead of sending people out to a site and putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, UAVs allow them to keep all of the people involved out of harms way. A traditional ground crew would have five people and take three weeks. Using a UAV, that team is reduced to a single person, and they can capture the data they need in 2 days. These are differences that allow project managers to make decisions based on their needs, rather than on the costs of these services.


UAS Sensors and Analytics for Precision Agriculture featured Alfonso Torres-Rua, Brian Walter, Gabriel Torres, Michael Ritter and Tom McKinnon. Each of the speakers made a presentation around their solution while addressing what sensors they were using, what data they collect, what they’re able to do with that data in terms of a deliverable and how this info is helping farmers become more productive.

Some of the presenters talked through how there’s a lack of info on the farm, especially as many farms and farming operations have grown in size. Many see a lack of information from the time seeds are put into the ground to when the crops are harvested, and they’re trying to find intelligent ways of providing that info. The questions they really looked to address centered on how info gathered from a drone can and is different from the info gathered from a manned aircraft. They’re looking to quantify and qualify how this data is helping farmers in a way they’ll be able to see and recognize on their bottom line.

One of the most interesting things about this session was an anecdotal comment we heard from the crowd, as an operator discussed how he had been trying to get away from the farm for his entire life, but found that UAVs were pulling him back to it. Drones gave him something that he felt could make a difference, which is a great example of one of the typically unspoken ways this technology can impact the industry.

During the Q&A, many of the attendees had specific questions around how UAVs could be used, and some even asked for specific numbers. The panelists did their best to address the questions, but many of them were also quick to say so much changed from one situation to the next. Different crops need different tools, and the panelists all agreed that there is a tool for every crop.


The highlight of the day was probably the Federal, State and Local: How Can We All Get Along? session which featured Joshua Turner, Reginald Govan, Stephen Ucci and Tom McMahon. The session was an honest discussion among the participants around how legislation should and is being handled as it relates to these different government entities, and many specific questions from the audience were addressed.

Ultimately, any government entity below the federal level that tries to regulate the airspace is exerting control over something they really can’t regulate, which causes many issues. However, cities and states have control over where aircraft can take off and land, which means it’s not a simple issue of saying this is strictly a federal issue. What’s more, does it make sense for, say, Providence, RI to have the same rules around flying a drone as Washington DC? These are questions that need to be sorted out, and regardless of who makes the actual laws and enforces them, the rules that come out need to come from a conversation between these entitles, rather than a decree from one branch or another.

Speaking of enforcement, one of the more interesting things to come up was from an operator who was looking to sort out regulation questions for himself, and had recently dealt with a sheriff who had been called out to ask him what he was doing as he was flying his drone. After the sheriff saw nothing was amiss, the sheriff actually asked the operator what he should be asking him about the legal operation of his drone, which just goes to show how much uncertainly remains on all sides of this issue. Is the solution to enact a federal law that is enforced by state and local authorities? What level of government should be making these decisions, and what should their approach be? The panel laid out their thoughts to these questions and many more.


Stay tuned for more coverage from AUVSI, and let us know your thoughts around the coverage.