As a longtime drone industry advocate, let me start by saying I was beyond honored to be asked to moderate the “Precision Ag and Forestry” panel discussion and session at the 5th edition of Commercial UAV Expo last week in Las Vegas, NV, at the Westgate Resort and Casino.
One caveat, though: Not as much ag-focused drone stuff at the show as I had thought there would be. MicaSense was there talking about its new 10-band spectral sensor, and AeroVironment showed its new electric helicopter with modular payloads, and there were some intriguing startups with some interesting new products and services around ag drones, but my unofficial, based on zero data estimate is that precision ag stuff probably made up around 3% of the trade show floor. (Please, if you had a different perspective on this, @ me!)
Still, there were some interesting tidbits to come out of the show that you should probably be aware of, whether directly influencing precision ag or not.
- NASA, Buoyed By Trump’s Love of the Space Program, is Poised for Big Moves: NASA Administrator James Bridenstein was one of the better speakers on the docket at Commercial UAV Expo. Bridenstein talked about the agency’s commitment to Urban Air Mobility, which encompasses Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management in the National Airspace (NAS). NASA is reportedly investing currently in radar systems for ID’ing and tracking medium-sized drones in the NAS, and the agencies’ latest “Grand Challenge” is to have one U.S. city with the ability to control and monitor in real-time hundreds of drones (swarms) doing thousands of tasks in place by 2028. Of course, anytime NASA makes an appearance, there’s certain things people want to know, like when are we finally landing on Mars? Bridenstein laid out the latest space travel goals at the agency, which are mandated by President Trump and include: landing a man and woman on the moon again by 2024; another successful moon mission by 2028; the ability for “sustainable travel” to the moon by 2030; and the big one, successfully complete a manned mission to Mars by mid-2030. “We need to go see if there is life on a world not our own,” Admin Bridenstein told the enthralled crowd. Of course, the very next audience question drew some hearty laughs: “What can you tell us about ETs (extraterrestrials)?”
UPS Is All In On Delivery Drones and BVLOS: UPS’ Flight Forward, the ambitious BVLOS drone delivery wing of private parcel logistics giant UPS, sent its top guy Bala Ganesh to Vegas to discuss Brown’s vision for last-mile package delivery via drone. Besides continuing to work on its nifty mobile delivery van/UAV launch-capable vehicle mashup, Ganesh shared that Flight Forward has already completed over 1,000 successful revenue generating flights on the Wake Med medical campus in North Carolina since getting FAA approval on the first FAA Part 135 certification. “We’ve learned (a lot), and now it is time to scale this from concept to vision to reality,” he shared. Flight Forward is working on similar medical delivery pilot programs with the University of Utah and Kaiser Permanente, and Ganesh announced a new partnership with CVS retail pharmacies to deliver life-saving prescriptions to home-bound patients via drone. Affordable, practical, repeatable, and actionable is what UPS Flight Forward is looking for from the drone technology it invests in, and the company reportedly is not beholden to any one brand or manufacturer, as Ganesh shared. “Drones need to fit your organizations workflow, not the other way around,” he told the audience. “It needs to be modular and the drone does the work while the pilot simply oversees and monitors. We need to shift the model to more autonomy.”
- Attendees Seeking Other Options: With some estimates pegging its market share at the 80% mark and above in commercial drones in the U.S., it’s no surprise DJI’s name came up many, many times at the show, despite the manufacturer strangely not having much of an official presence at all during the week. In chatting with multiple attendees across many industry verticals it’s clear many U.S.-based drone service providers and users are looking for avenues to get away from Chinese-manufactured drone technology. Now, it will be interesting to see if it’s Skydio, with its super impressive, show-stealing Skydio 2 bird, or a long established player like Seattle-based Autel and its EVO platform with modular sensing payloads (thermal, multi-spec) that will take advantage of this shift away from Chinese manufacturers, given the concerns around data collection and dissemination. DJI has put out several statements throughout the weeks and months since, going as far as to assure users it had no intentions of becoming a data company.