By Chip Downing
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) 2015 was one of the most interesting trade shows I have visited in many years. My yardstick for great AUVSI shows is the Washington, DC event in August 2009 – the Washington Convention Center was brisling with the latest unmanned systems for the US military and intelligence community, and the trade show floor was packed (literally) with attendees, with most vendor booths overwhelmed by the number of visitors, with the main attraction the latest gear destined for operations in the Middle East.
Later in 2009 the housing bubble burst, Wall Street collapsed, and our world was plunged into a global recession. This was followed by years of do-nothing-Congress bickering with a heavy dose of US military budget cuts and sequestration. AUVSI survived in the years following, but never achieved quite the hype or the vendor/attendee density of the 2009 DC event.
Then, in 2014, an unlikely sheriff rode into town – the FAA. Despite meager congressional funding to expand the scope of their operations, the FAA began releasing new guidance for using small unmanned aerial systems, sUAS, in commercial applications in controlled airspace also known at the National Airspace System (NAS). These regulations, despite their conservative stance, have set off a new wave of optimism in the unmanned systems industry for vendors supplying components and complete UAV systems for commercial flights into controlled airspace.
This wave of optimism was wildly apparent at AUVSI and DroneComm 2015. Gone were the aisles of big military equipment – some key players, like Northrop Grumman, Sikorsky, and Insitu were still here, but a vast number of new unmanned systems suppliers, focused on providing either components or complete sUAS platforms, arrived at this show. It was refreshing to see this large community of suppliers united in this common wave of industry enthusiasm.
This year also had a show within a show, DroneCommm 2015, on May 6 at AUVSI 2015. This was new conference that focused on connecting next-generation IP networks, drones, and IoT systems and how service providers, enterprises and unmanned systems companies can monetize the build-out of this communications opportunity. DroneComm 2015 was an all-day event discussed technology that underpins drone-based IoT data sensing, collection, and communication systems, and examined the early use-cases for drones (and balloons) from a communications standpoint. There was also good discussion on the regulatory and security concerns around unmanned flying vehicles in the National Airspace System (NAS).
Wind River had an impressive booth that had two demonstration stations – one for the Simics system simulation tool and another demonstrating a complete cockpit avionics stack. The Simics demonstrator was showing the use of the Intel Broadwell DE model, a next generation processor for high compute environments – this is ideal for radar and other imaging systems in UAV mission or application computers.
Wind River was also demonstrating their avionics stack, with layered partner products, aligning with the Future Airborne Capabilities Environment (FACE™) technical specification architecture. At the base of this stack was an Intel Core i7-3770 processor with an internal HD4000 GPU. Then on top of this was Wind River’s VxWorks environment, with drivers from Core AVI for the HD400 GPU. Above this was the Ansys / Esterel SCADE Display HMI. All of these technologies can have DO-178C certification artifacts generated for rapid FAA or EASA certification.
The show had a wide range of exhibitors this year — here is a rundown of some of the more interesting suppliers I found at AUVSI 2015 in Atlanta:
- Creative Electronic Systems: CES had a nice display of their family of small form factor enclosures for mission systems based upon the VNX (a.k.a. VITA 74) standard. The systems demonstrated showcased Intel Atom E3845 and AMD G-Series SoCs. All platforms were running Wind River’s VxWorks operating systems, and one platform had a complete Wind River / partner avionics stack running CoreAVI and Ansys Esterel graphics components.
- Curtiss-Wright Corporation: Curtiss-Wright displayed its latest rugged size, weight, and power (Swap) optimized commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products for unmanned systems.
- Airware: Airware demonstrated their family of UAV autopilot capabilities for both multirotor and fixed-wing drone aircraft.
- PrecisionHawk: PrecisionHawk gave a demonstration of their UAV platform using an Intel Atom processor that interacted with people the ground in real-time to demonstrate onboard, in-flight analytics and safety capabilities for unmanned aircraft.
- Sikorsky: Sikorsky had a Black Hawk helicopter on display, but that was just the draw, not the story. The real story was the Sikorsky MATRIX™ technology that enabled aircraft to be operated with 2, 1, or 0 pilots.
- Yamaha: Yamaha showcased their RMAX UAV at AUVSI and announced that the FAA has just approved a section 333 exemption for Yamaha to operate these UAVs for commercial use for precision agriculture.
- FACE: AUVSI also had very strong participation from members of the Future Airborne Capabilities Environment (FACE™) Consortium, including Wind River partners Adacore, CES, Curtiss-Wright, Esterel Technologies, Presagis, and Real-Time Innovations (RTI). Wind River customers that are also members of the FACE Consortium had a significant presence, and these include Elbit Systems of America, Esterline, GE Aviation, General Atomics, Harris, IBM, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Mercury Systems, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, Sierra Nevada, Textron, and UTC Aerospace. Software components that are aligned with the FACE Technical Standard are already flying with this large ecosystem of proven unmanned systems suppliers.
In summary, here are my views on this event.
- We have made a fundamental transition from military to commercial unmanned systems — this year’s AUVSI event is the proof point of this statement. Similar to advanced military radios using software-defined radio (SDR) technology giving way to high volume civilian/commercial cell and smart phones, the next generation military systems will be based upon high volume, high capability commercial solutions parts that will be appropriately ruggedized for military missions as required.
- We now know how to build both large and small autonomous unmanned systems. There is now a large, vibrant ecosystem of both component and systems providers in this UAV / UAS marketplace. This supply chain is primed and ready to feed hungry industries that want to take advantage of this wide range of capabilities available as commercial products today.
- The FAA is doing a great job enabling segments of air space to meet the burgeoning demands of a young and growing commercial UAS market. I see the FAA continuing to release more guidance and approvals in the future as we prove out the safety and security qualities of these new devices in these controlled air sub-spaces and use cases.
- The next step in creating unmanned systems value is providing ways to harvest and analyze this massive amount of IoT data in real-time streaming from these UAV devices. Next year’s AUVSI event should have a set of new and expanded suppliers offering products and services to meet this IoT data analysis market demand. It should be another great AUVSI in New Orleans in May next year.
Many thanks to AUVSI, the FAA, all of the suppliers / exhibitors, and the large number of attendees make this year’s event in Atlanta a great success.