I got to spend two days at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) North America 2012 trade show last week. As a first pass, the industry continues to grow even as defense cuts start to put a damper on things. Other domains besides air are also starting to look like real possibilities though their manufacturers don’t always see fit to join AUVSI. There is still tremendous excitement about the FAA’s recent moves that seem to indicate real progress in the last year. Privacy concerns are being taken seriously, hopefully early enough to nip the issue in the bud, because the safety issues seem to be close to resolved.
- The show is bigger than ever with more and more companies in attendance. Based on my entirely unscientific method of walking around the show and looking at the booths at random, it seems to me that there are more companies offering services and software, about the same number offering components and hardware, and many fewer trying a hawk new platforms. I think this reflects the reality of customer budgets and also the maturity of the industry. The show didn’t have quite the same clubby feel that I used to remember, but maybe that’s good as well.
- There was real concern and real awareness of the image problems that our industry has. AUVSI is still definitely focused on the air side of things, but ground and maritime are definitely on their radar. There is real determination on the part of the association leadership, both professional and volunteer, to counteract the negative press that the industry has been getting.
- The Brookings Institution and the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) were both in attendance to participate in a privacy forum. The Brookings and ACLU seem to have a great deal of common ground with the AUVSI membership at large on at least the law enforcement uses of unmanned aircraft. That is the fourth amendment is still in effect and the same sorts of procedures that govern manned aircraft data collection ought to govern unmanned aircraft data collection. Further, most people here on both sides of the panel were far more personally concerned about being tracked by cellphone data than unmanned aircraft.
- The show is still definitely defense centered. However, there is a feeling in the air that the FAA will actually do something and get unmanned aircraft out in the airspace soon. Lots more booths are starting to have material that touts civilian use and more thinking is going into what will happen after the FAA starts allowing unmanned aircraft in the airspace. Personally, I’m still skeptical that FAA is going to meet its deadlines, but I am certainly hoping that they will.
- Robotics is starting to be used more in the same breath with unmanned systems. Most of the AUVSI education outreach efforts don’t talk about unmanned systems at all (except maybe in an acronym) but do talk about robotics education. I think this is a really positive development. I would like to see AUVSI, the RIA, SAE robotics, and the robotic medical device companies operate under some kind of shared banner. We all have the same workforce concerns, similar regulatory concerns, and face the same kind of backlash whenever we try to introduce new applications. I believe that there is strength in numbers and it is always great to get the back-up that the fallacious counter arguments being trotted out against your robotic application are the same ones trotted out against other robotic applications that have gone on to be successful. Particularly when we go to Capitol Hill to try and get rules changed so that we can compete on level playing field with legacy systems I think that there is value in having the Boeings (NYSE:BA), Intuitives (NASDAQ:ISRG), and Schillings (acquired by FMC NYSE:FTI) of the world support each other.