Drone professionals and enthusiasts from every U.S. state and more than 56 countries converged on Las Vegas last week to talk aerial robots at InterDrone Expo 2016. The energy was high and the conversations were earnest. What I loved most about InterDrone? Seeing all those innovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders working together to find solutions and carry the industry forward.

This video, by my colleague Jonathan Natiuk, captures the spirit of InterDrone 2016.

InterDrone 2016 – First Day Highlights from SkywardIO on Vimeo.

Part 107: Flexibility & Compromise

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta kicked off InterDrone 2016 by candidly acknowledging the criticisms leveled at the agency in the run-up to the release of the new rules on August 29. “The pace of 333 Exemptions in our first month was glacial,” he said. “We only granted seven.”

But what started out as a massive challenge/headache for the FAA has become an opportunity. “We’ve had to change the way we do business,” Administrator Huerta said. “We’re trying very hard to stop moving at the speed of government. The collaborative approach we’ve adopted over the past couple of years is working. [Part 107] isn’t something the FAA did; it’s something we all did together.”

And they’ve upped the pace. On August 29, the day Part 107 was released, the FAA granted 76 waivers to businesses that had proved they could safely conduct operations not allowed under Part 107—night flights, flying beyond visual line of sight, and overflying people.

Speaking of waivers: On day two of InterDrone, Google’s Project Wing announced a test project to deliver Chipotle via drone in Virginia!

We Announced Our Partnership with DroneDeploy

In his keynote address, Mike Winn, CEO of DroneDeploy, mentioned the business processes, compliance, and airspace data that Skyward will bring to DroneDeploy’s customers.

By partnering with Skyward we’re able to offer our customers an enterprise drone solution that helps businesses quickly ramp their drone operations while seamlessly mitigating their compliance risk,” he said in a press release.

“So many of our customers who specialize in industries such as commercial construction and mining have told us that they need better ways to analyze data and quickly produce maps for their clients,” said Jonathan Evans, Skyward CEO. “Our integration with DroneDeploy solves this need for our customers, giving them a simple way to manage their entire operation while ensuring safety and efficiency on every job.”

Measure’s Take on Business Acumen and Standardized Processes

One of our major goals at Skyward is to help growing businesses and major corporations standardize and scale their drone operations. With their new franchise model, Measure (one of Skyward’s very first customers) is providing reliable, standardized drone services nationwide.

“Moving people and equipment all over the country is expensive and not sustainable,” said Jesse Stepler, COO of Measure. “If you’re in the Fortune 1000, you don’t want just anybody to show up and fly over your sensitive infrastructure—you want to know that the people flying for you are well trained and there is zero risk.”

And that’s where Measure comes in: Their nationwide network of drone service providers will begin to roll out by the end of the year. “Our members operate autonomously, within very strict guidelines. And all of the data processing and analysis is centralized to our headquarters in Washington, DC,” Jesse said.

Measure gives franchisees HR policies, as well as office management, flight ops, and data security procedures—all of which serve to mitigate risk for both clients and insurers, standardize operations, and ensure quality.

Jesse also said that, while manned aviation experience can be an asset for a drone operator, it’s not a must. Measure wants to partner with franchisees who have good business acumen, strong local connections, and the ability to thrive within guidelines.

“Based on their background and experience, veterans are a great fit for our franchises,” Jesse said.

Insights on Precision Agriculture from PrecisionHawk and Measure

There are few things more important than the global food supply, so one of my goals for InterDrone 2016 was to learn more about how UAVs are transforming the way our food is grown.

In a session co-presented by Thomas Haun, VP of Strategy & Globalization for PrecisionHawk, and Skyward’s own CEO Jonathan Evans, I learned that drones are enabling farmers to analyze field data down to the individual leaf. Farmers can also inspect their crops more frequently than ever before. This allows them to act quickly in order to optimize yields, detect changes, and prevent losses from disease or pets.

In another session, Robert Blair, VP of Agriculture at Measure, reported on internal data indicating that farmers typically lose an average of 20% of crop yields: 10% from weather and 10% from suboptimal management. Measure has used drones to reduce the management gap by 25% for their customers. They’ve also found that drones have actually helped farmers beat the weather gap by allowing them to respond quickly to weather-related issues.

Previously, agricultural drones have been most useful for smaller farms, common in places like Japan and Europe. However, several recent developments are making this approach to ag tech more viable and useful than ever before:

  1. BVLOS. Since Part 107 was released two weeks ago, businesses can now apply for waivers to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), removing a logistical barrier to surveying the enormous fields common in North America. Case in point: PrecisionHawk was granted a BVLOS waiver on August 30, the day after Part 107 went live.
  2. Sensors are becoming incredibly sophisticated. For example, PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster UAV can carry visual, thermal infrared, multispectral, LIDAR, and hyperspectral sensors, giving farmers access to a robust data set.
  3. UAVs are now a viable tool for doing business. To put it mildly, farmers have a lot going on—so it’s unrealistic to expect that most of them would become expert drone pilots. Fortunately, many drone service providers are becoming experts in the agriculture space. And Skyward’s new integration with PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster drone, Smarter Farming package, and DataMapper software gives farmers and drone service providers the tools to run a safe, efficient, low-risk operation.          

Advice on Scaling Business Operations from Uplift, Aerobo, DroneSeed, and Skyward      

Jonathan Evans hosted a panel featuring three diverse Skyward customers: Uplift Data Partners, backed by the engineering giant Clayco, Inc.; Aerobo, a boot-strapped startup from Brooklyn; and DroneSeed, which came out of the TechStars incubator.

While all three have very different business models and areas of focus, their advice was surprisingly consistent.

Grant Canary of DroneSeed advised growing companies to keep an eye on scalability. “Show constant iterative improvement,” he said.

“It’s essential to have all your ducks in a row, including regulations and compliance,” said Jon Ollwerther of Aerobo. “The smallest cog getting stuck can derail you. There are so many details to manage, which is one of the reasons we use Skyward.”

“And it’s not just FAA compliance, which is fairly straightforward,” added Andrew Dennison from Uplift. “We’ve found compliance, risk management, and insurance are even more important on a day-to-day basis. Risk managers want to see preflight checklists and know that you’re following the same process every time.”

Looking to the Future at InterDrone

Maria Stephanopoulos, production manager at ABC’s Good Morning America, gave an inspiring talk on using drones to provide unprecedented journalistic coverage of the most far-flung places on earth: a volcano in Iceland, a savanna in Tanzania, the first exploration of the world’s largest cave system in Vietnam. In every case, Maria and her team provided footage never seen before. She described the technical and logistical challenges of wrangling crew members, battling the elements, and providing live feeds from remote locations back to New York.

“We have found a device that will change the way we tell stories forever,” she said.

On one of her trips, she was accompanied by Romeo Durscher, DJI’s Director of Education. In a separate keynote, Romeo talked about how drones are empowering first responders and helping governments to prepare for emergencies. For example, by partnering with DroneDeploy, DJI mapped the Maldives. The island nation is one of the most at-risk places in the world due to rising sea levels—and previously the country only had paper maps. The new maps are allowing the Maldives to understand and prepare for the risks it faces from climate change.

Drones are intersecting with nearly every industry, and that means we need a way to manage all of them. In a panel on UAS traffic management, moderated by Skyward advisor Jim Williams, representatives from the FAA, NASA, Harris Critical Networks, and Google discussed the challenges and priorities for developing a global system for managing a high volume of UAS traffic.

Hoot Gibson of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office identified the following priorities:

  • Managing the airspace boundaries and transition points between manned and unmanned aircraft
  • Controlling autonomous aircraft in urban environments
  • Developing an electronic signature system that can accommodate millions of drones
  • Data exchange among drones and between drones and air traffic control