Canada’s big drone conference got underway today. The annual gathering of Unmanned Systems Canada / Systèmes Télécommandés Canada (USC-STC) is known for high-level sessions with great learning and some really great speakers. This year’s opening day was no exception.
If you’re familiar with Unmanned Systems Canada / Systèmes Télécommandés Canada (USC-STC), you already know it: USC-STC puts on a well-organized annual conference that brings together leading service providers, manufacturers, researchers, and regulators in the world of unmanned technology. If it’s got anything to do with a robot that flies, crawls, or swims (or moves across water), there’s going to be an expert who knows everything about it at this gathering. This year’s conference, UC20Remote, is a virtual one. But that had no bearing on the quality of a 90-minute session to discuss the future of drones.
That round-table had some great heavyweights on board, including:
- Michael Huerta, former FAA Administrator
- Cameron Chell, CEO Draganfly
- Arun Thangaraj, Associate Deputy Minister of Transport (Canada)
- Jordan Cicoria, Managing Director of Aerium Analytics
- Michael Cohen, CEO of Qii.AI (and Moderator of the panel)
They all had a lot to say, and all of it was worthwhile. Because the panel did a lot of talking (as panels do), this piece will include some extended quotes to place those thoughts in context – and to give you a sense of the conversation that took place.
It’s no secret that drones are a disruptive technology. Nor is it a secret that things are evolving rapidly in the world of drones. Medical deliveries, AI, new specialized sensors and use-cases – all these are accelerating rapidly.
Michael Huerta saw some of this coming earlier. In fact, he predicted the use of drones for deliveries well before it became a reality.
“When I was at the FAA, somebody asked me to make a prediction about five years ago (regarding) when we would start to see package deliveries,” recalled Huerta. “And I made the comment at that point: ‘Well, within five years.’ And everyone laughed, they couldn’t envision it would take place that quickly.”
Draganfly’s Chell, meanwhile, says he has been stunned by developments in the delivery business.
“I have been astounded by the delivery business,” he says. “If you had asked me five years ago if we would be doing package deliveries I would have said you were crazy.” Then he continued:
I have been astounded by the package delivery business and how it’s progressing and where it’s going. Now I still don’t personally believe we’re going to have drones buzzing around our head 24/7, buzzing around and dropping packages off from Amazon at my neighbour’s place – I think we’re a long ways from that…. But I think the ROI is becoming very clear that drones…in the next few years, whether it’s package delivery on a construction site or across very specific routes or last mile for certain trucker situations, it’s going to have a major impact on industry and transport. On almost every single industry.
Cameron Chell, Draganfly CEO
From hardware to software
Chell also made a significant observation about the evolution of the industry, saying there’s been a significant shift from breakthroughs in basic hardware to software:
We’ve certainly seen the industry move from a hardware-centric, ‘Wow this is really cool,’ looking at things like battery (capacity) and (flight) times… The Chinese competitors out there have really driven the industry, to the benefit of all of us, a long way farther than what I thought it would. The areas that we’re really interested in (now) and where we see big developments happening is on the payloads and on the sensors. We’re deveoping sensors today that look at particular particles in the air and that can give us data we’ve never had before. We’re integrating our sensors with special forces on the ground that are controlling a drone that then talks with high-level drones and satellite drones. We’re integrating our sensors with autonomous cars that are giving us microclimate readings from a truck that’s driving down a road. We have sensors that identify certain types of algae in water that now prevent people from having to go into the water to get samples. We even have sensors that read your heart rate. I mean, there’s nothing that collects data better than a drone, other than maybe your cellphone that’s on you.
It’s that type of data explosion that drones are going to bring: The processing power that’s on that drone, the connection to the cloud, AI integration… I think we’re looking at an entirely new world that drones will be a part of…
A new world
There was agreement across the board that the acceleration and disruption will only continue. Aerium Analytics, which is involved in a number of cutting-edge projects (including airport security, Beyond Visual Line of Sight, Unmanned Traffic Management and AI), has its own vision. And that vision acknowledges that some people will embrace the work of drones, while others may be more resistant.
Here are some thoughts from Aerium’s Jordan Cicoria:
I’ve always said if you’re flying a drone you’re doing it for a reason, and it falls into two main buckets: You’re either delivering something somewhere – people or cargo, or you’re collecting information. And that’s the only main reason other than recreation or having fun. I truly think we’re going to start to see a little bit of a schism in the next five years. I think you have this idea that, yes, people are either going to start to accept drones, everyone understands their purpose (and) the general public’s getting more comfortable with them. But you also have a little bit of a case of NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. So you start to worry about noise pollution. You start to worry about: Oh is someone monitoring me? So the way I really see this is in long-range locations, in areas where urban delivery is required, getting into those communities where frankly there is no other way to deliver supplies – medical, emergencies, food – you’re going to start to see that acceptance. But I also worry that you’re going to see a little public resistance in and around urban centres… That last mile, for urban air mobility…? I think we have a lot of work as an industry – regulators, operators, manufacturers – I think we have to do a lot of work to do over the next few years on that public perception piece: The safety side, how we’re not spying. These are all hot-button topics.
Jordan Cicoria, Managing Director, Aerium Analytics
Cicoria also offered this glimpse ahead with what he acknowledged was a bold prediction (one with which we happen to agree):
I do feel we’re going to move beyond BVLOS into autonomous flight within the next five years in certain settings (particularly serving remote locations)…. Operations from a command centre that’s 1,000 kilometres away. The technology is there, it’s moving faster and faster. It was said four years ago that a month in the RPAS field is like a year in normal business.
Jordan Cicoria, Aerium Analytics
With former FAA administrator Michael Huerta and Canada’s Associate Deputy Minister of Transport on board, there was also discussion of the role of regulators in striking that delicate balance between encouraging innovation, ensuring safety – and seeking consensus and input from both the public and the industry. Canada’s Arun Thangaraj said drones (known in Canada as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, or RPAS) are now considered a priority for the department.
One of the things we are aware of is that from a regulatory standpoint: RPAS is not just an element or a little niche area for us. It has become something that is a priority for the department given the expansion and the capabilities and the use-cases and all of those things.
Arun Thangaraj, Associated Deputy Minister of Transport
There was a ton of other interesting stuff that won’t make the cut here. But when you heard the predictions and enthusiasm, one other thing that wasn’t really touched on became clear: There will continue to be explosive growth in jobs in this field. There’s simply no question about that.
Drones are here to stay. The number and type of jobs in this field will only grow, as will the use-case scenarios. It’s a brave new world, and an exciting one.
If working in this field appeals to you…consider it. We’re going to need you.