By: Brandi Jewett, Forum News Service
Delore Zimmerman can’t predict exactly where the unmanned aircraft systems industry is going, but he can tell you where it’s been.
Zimmerman is the executive director of the Red River Valley Research Corridor, the organization that has held the annual UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks since its inception in 2006. The event has grown not only in the number of attendees in the past decade but also in the scope of speakers presenting.
It’s beginning came with a changing focus at Grand Forks Air Force Base, which now deals in large unmanned aircraft, such as the Global Hawk and Predator, rather than refueling tankers.
“The change in the mission at the Air Force Base really galvanized policymakers, government officials, business leaders and (UND) around the concept that we really need to support this new mission,” Zimmerman said Tuesday. “I think that’s really the driving force behind where (the summit) is where it is today.”
The presence of UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace in Grand Forks also lends legitimacy to the event, Zimmerman added.
While military speakers are still a staple of the summit, those exploring research and commercial use of the technology continue to be a growing presence.
The event isn’t as large as others held around the country—attendance ranging from 300 to 400 people each year—but Zimmerman said those who attend say the size works well for networking.
Dozens of companies, universities and government entities send personnel to the event. Industry giants mix with startups as both navigate emerging technology and the sometimes negative public perceptions that accompany it.
It’s a frustration several speakers mentioned during the first two days of the summit.
“There are so many individual and recreational users out there that are carelessly using this technology,” said Mario Mairena, government relations manager for Aerial Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry trade group.
The summit provides a venue for operators, both professional and recreational, to gather to learn more about the legal landscape of unmanned aircraft, Zimmerman said.
“We’ve always done these from a standpoint of ‘Let’s do it right,'” he added, “because that’s the way to build an industry.”
While incidents involving irresponsible use of unmanned aircraft continue to make headlines, AUVSI predicts the technology will still be a big business in the coming decade.
An economic analysis by the organization estimates unmanned aircraft systems will be an $82 billion market by 2025.
Work is still being done to integrate the technology into the national airspace, but AUVSI contends each year without integration costs the country $10 billion in lost economic impact.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s integration deadline mandated in 2012 by Congress is just days away, and speakers at this year’s UAS Summit noted it’s safe to say the agency won’t make deadline.
Also waiting in the wings is the FAA’s proposed rules for the operation of small unmanned aircraft, categorized as devices weighing less than 55 pounds. The rules are available for public comment but likely wouldn’t be implemented until 2016 or 2017.
In the meantime, speakers from several companies and institutions have highlighted what they are doing to ease unmanned aircraft’s transition into national airspace.
With the landscape of unmanned aircraft continuing to change, Zimmerman said he can’t define its future, but its progress will be interesting to watch unfold.
“I can’t wait to see what it looks like 10 years from now,” he added.