Brian Wynne/Photo Credit: AUVSI

Engineers and business strategists from across the unmanned aerial systems industry gathered in Dallas last week for AUVSI’s Xponential conference. AUVSI, a nonprofit devoted to providing support and networking for the unmanned systems and robotics industry, opened its doors to military, commercial, and civilian drone users including its 7,500 members.

From a product standpoint, the industry showed continued flux, with more and more companies springing up in the small drone space, and heavy-hitters like Lockheed Martin, Curtiss-Wright, and NASA holding down the defense side. Panels at the conference included discussions of security, SWaP considerations, engine types, and drone form factors.

At the forefront of the movement was AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne, formerly president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Product Design & Development spoke to him about the trends he sees in the industry and the uneasy partnership between autonomous and piloted aircraft. (Wynne flies both.) 

On May 12, recently appointed AUVSI board chairman Dallas Brooks said, “I’ve never been more optimistic about where we’re going — both as an organization and as an industry.”

Wynne also sees the industry’s rapid growth as an opportunity for development in a lot of different elements of drone design.

“I was going to say more companies talk about data and analysis, but there are also a lot of new platforms,” he says. “All domains are represented. The platforms are all shapes and sizes.”

He also noted that people are increasingly using geofencing to keep drones out of places they are not needed to be, a technology which Wynne calls “not phenomenally sophisticated.”

With his background in business, Wynne looks at the industry from the perspective of market forces more than the physical forces most relevant to some designers. The market has been stalled by lack of regulation, he said, but some motor designs are taking the lead in terms of efficiency.

“Some of these designs might end up scaling up, but there’s a great need for greater efficiency at all sizes,” he says.

For examples of larger vehicles using electric motors he pointed to A3’s Ohana and Uber Elevate. (A3 is Airbus’ experimental aircraft outpost.)

“They’re going to push that design,” Wynne says. “I knew the small aviation world was working on hybrid electric plants. I was amazed at how they went from using that to manage power plants to scaling it up to something someone can get in.”

With that comes the tenuous relationship between pilots of conventional aircraft and drones in commercial markets, where single or multiple linked drones could be occupying the same space as piloted aircraft.

In June of 2016 the Federal Aviation Administration released Part 107, rules for small UAS pilots.

“…Since Part 107 went into effect there’s a whole cadre of pilots out there,” Wynne says. Shortly after the announcement of Part 107, about 450,000 people had registered.

As a private pilot himself, Wynne understands both sides of the problem when it comes to traffic in the sky.

“It hasn’t always been an easy relationship. [Helicopter pilots] don’t want to be anywhere near a drone unless it’s partnering with the aircraft,” he says.

However, as more people enter the airspace as remote pilots, it’s a change for traditional pilots to reach them the rules of the road.

“I wish we could see that many manned pilots come on at the same time!”

Our conversation also briefly touched on diversity in the field. AUVSI’s executive committee currently includes four men and one woman.

"We’re trying to promote more diversity, obviously, and this is our second year doing that [at the Women in Robotics Forum, a panel session]. I think we’ll be most effective with our chapter clubs in schools, getting drones to kids so they can learn about them early.”