Commercial UAV Expo Review

I was invited to come and take a look at the industries latest conference for drones. Spar group, long known as a provider of quality trade shows did not disappoint with this inaugural event. The UAV Expo was held in Las Vegas October 5-7.

Planning and executing an event like this can be double trouble. First, the industry is in such a rapid growth mode planners see the hot topics as a moving target. The other issue is finding qualified industry experts that are able to share proven strategies and results in an industry that has become known for very public and well videoed shortcomings.

I first need to make the case for what we at my company, Take-off Professionals are doing. I have been involved in the prototyping and construction of copters and fixed wing solutions for over a year. Our clients need solutions and came to us for answers. My sole purpose with UAV’s is to let todays walking topo rod person become the pilot that will collect 3D points faster and with more density than yesterday. To this end we are on commercial construction sites and are actually reducing risk associated with traditional data collection.

Add to the mix the different sensors available and it will not be long until this is the tool of choice for multiple types of data collection. As the ability of the platforms to lift more payload for longer times becomes reality the usefulness of these tools will expand.

UAV’s are versatile. I was happy to see that their use has been already expanded to markets and areas that were not possible just a few years ago. Here are some of the more exciting uses:

I was impressed by Patrick Meier ( presentation on UAV’s for disaster relief. After years of startup growing pains, fast forward to the present. After a natural disaster UAV’s are deployed to the site. Images and video are taken of affected areas. Those images of buildings are uploaded to the cloud where volunteers look at the condition of the structures and mark their perceived safety. When more reviewers come to the same conclusion, the structure is color coded for further inspection. After the Nepal earthquake, large maps were printed for the village to review in the town square and plan their own relief effort.

Inspection by UAV is the newer kid on the block. While not available for all types of inspection, here is the state of the technology:

Buildings can benefit from multi sensor imaging. Thermal cameras can detect roof leaks when flown at dawn. Regular cameras combined with thermal sensors help detect window and facade intrusions, really fast when you are doing a 20 story building. Water intrusion is the leading cause of building deterioration. Anything that can be done to mitigate the risk and offer early identification is a huge benefit.

Bridges and towers are a tough nut to crack at this moment. An aerial platform can inspect exterior points but as of this time there is no way to get safely inside the tower structure or up and inside the bridge beams where problems are often found. Though there is still a need for human access, it may be possible to reduce the time at risk during an inspection.

Mining is an inherently dangerous and tightly regulated industry. UAV’s have a place in inspection, measuring and monitoring of various types of mines. Several presentations were offered with the bottom line being that the mines are excited about the technology and forging ahead to obtain proper government compliance. Multiple sensor types are going to find their way into a mine operation, big things happening in this diversified industry.

Civil construction has been watching to see what other industries are doing before jumping in. Early adopters often times have barely used UAV’s sitting in a store room. Initial hype offered more than could be delivered. Currently it is possible to use a copter or plane to collect images for photogrammetry and process the data to obtain 3D points. Many companies have a wait and see attitude regarding regulatory issues due to the fact that expensive hurdles will dampen excitement in any investment.

The most interesting observation I had was the split in technology seen with vendors and presenters. On one side there is the press a button and it goes all by itself crowd, on the other is a user driven platform with the ability to manually fly and change sensors as well as other customization. Sure there is automation available in the flight control computers on these UAV’s but these craft have joystick control available and other controls that require a higher level of training and experience to use safely.

I see benefits of both and feel anyone who is going to be involved in the industry learn how to fly, handle emergencies and be a safer operator. The fact is that these things crash. Quality components, redundancy and better flight computers all help to improve the odds but it is all a matter of time. I am not trying to scare anybody, just educate. The copter I have recently built and am testing has a parachute that deploys manually or automatically. Just another chance for safety.

The 2016 Conference is already scheduled for October 31 to November 2 at the MGM Grand. I promise it will seem like a completely new show.