AUVSI showcases Xponential growth of UAV market

May 18, 2016  - By
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AUVSI's newly christened "Xponential" show drew together hundreds of commercial UAV products and services. (Photo: Joelle Harms, GPS World)

AUVSI’s newly christened “Xponential” show drew together hundreds of commercial UAV products and services. (Photo: Joelle Harms, GPS World)

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) hosted another big UAV show this month. Renamed Xponential, to denote the rapid growth in unmanned systems, the May 2-5 gathering in New Orleans was up to its billing — with 8,000 attendees from 55 countries, and 650 exhibitors.

The morning plenary sessions notably included a pitch from Amazon for a low-level, high-speed transit zone for delivery drones and associated tight operational controls. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the formation of an industry advisory group to speed up integration of drones into the National Airspace and relaxation of rules to allow students to operate UAS for educational and research purposes.

However, there was much corridor discussion of the FAA’s intransigence as the introduction of regulations for drones continue to be delayed. The feeling seemed to be that other nations are already adapting quickly to accommodate drone applications in their airspace, while the FAA is felt to be holding back the development of a multi-billion-dollar industry in the U.S.

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is huge, with several large exhibit halls, and the AUVSI show floor used every bit of the space, filling it with booths and exhibits. Almost every company had something to announce about their growing business in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or in unmanned ground or water vehicles.

Global Hawk advancements

I’ve always been interested in Global Hawk and its ups and downs as it progressed through U.S. and European start-and-stop programs, so I was delighted when I got an invitation to talk with the Northrop-Grumman team at their booth.

Global Hawk (Photo: USAF)

Global Hawk (Photo: USAF)

With a declared operational ceiling of 50,000 feet and various payloads, Global Hawk is an ideal high-altitude reconnaissance platform. While the 2011–12 U.S. budget cuts threw a wrench into their programs with the U.S. military, Global Hawk found other places to demonstrate its capability — like over Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and with NASA flying into heavy weather.

X-47B UCAS

X-47B UCAS

Things are now much better, with many systems in U.S. inventory, several operational bases around the world and with at least one Global Hawk airborne 24/7. With 34-hour endurance, store and forward capability and a huge 1,200-pound payload option, this UAS program is now really airborne. And anyone into UASs must have seen clips of the X-47B UCAS carrier landings and aerial refueling — hopefully this program will also soon extend past the demonstration phase.

UAS equipment suppliers

There were plenty of UAS equipment suppliers at the show. Here’s just a sample:

  • Embention has developed its UAS autopilot (Veronte Autopilot) so that it is certifiable to aviation hardware and software standards, anticipating equipment regulations similar to those for manned aircraft. It is Do178 and Do254 compliant.
  • Epiq Solutions has a large number of wireless solutions from cellular to 6 GHz.
  • VectorNav introduced the MEMS-based Tactical Series, including the VN-110inertial measurement unit and attitude heading reference system (IMU/AHRS), the VN-210 GPS-aided INS (GPS/INS), and the VN-310 dual-antenna GPS/INS.
  • Spectracom brought its new VersaSyn all-in-one time-and-frequency GPS master clock ND network time server to the show, for UAS on-board payload sync solutions. In addition, all the latest in GNSS simulation tools were on display at the Spectracom booth.
  • Freewave displayed a range of wireless solutions, including a long-range 900-MHz control and data link for UAS.
  • The Sensonor iMAR iNAT-M200.

    The Sensonor iMAR iNAT-M200.

    Amimon again presented its “zero-latency” HD video-link system. Its Connex product is apparently becoming the standard for movie-making using drones, as well as for high-definition inspection applications.

  • FLIR announced the Vue Pro R thermal-imaging camera series for commercial drones.
  • Gladiator Technologies (LKD Aerospace) showed its extensive range of gyro, inertial and GPS/INS products.
  • Sensonor announced the integration of its STIM300 IMU within the iMAR iNAT-M200 inertial navigation system and for the iATTHEMO-C high-precision heading, attitude, position and velocity reference product.
  • KVH has partnered with Geodetics to provide high-performance positioning and navigation products for commercial applications requiring high levels of precision for unmanned platforms and ground navigation. The KVH 1750 IMU that Geodetics is integrating provides highly accurate six-degrees-of-freedom angular rate and acceleration data, contributing to a high-performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution.
  • Geodetics is integrating the KVH 1750 IMU into both a GPS-aided inertial navigation system (Geo-iNAV Advanced) and a high-accuracy relative navigation, positioning and orientation system (Geo-RelNAV). These COTS products are available for commercial applications such as manned and unmanned platforms for land, air and sea — surface or subsea — mobile mapping systems, photogrammetry and terrestrial navigation. Also featured at Exponential was Geodetics’ Geo-MMS Lidar Mobile Mapping System, which can achieve 10-25 centimeter point-cloud georeferencing when using real-time kinematic positioning.

Videos from the Xponential show floor


Three major GNSS OEM companies were also at the show:

  • Septentrio is apparently avoiding the need for ground control points for surveying. The ReProcessed Kinematic (RPK) GeoTagZ solution on the AsteRx-m UAS OEM board eliminates the need for a real-time fixed station datalink while still guaranteeing RTK centimeter-level accuracy. This simplifies set-up, reduces the power drain from the on-board radio, and eliminates the loss of data due to unreliable radio links — things that often plague UAV operations. GeoTagZ software uses GNSS data recorded by the receiver and combines it with the base station reference file to calculate centimeter-level RTK positions for georeferencing photographs taken by the UAV.
  • NovAtel came to AUVSI Exponential to meet the company’s many customers in the UAS business — a large number of different UAS applications integrate NovAtel OEM receivers on-board. With a great first quarter in the bag, NovAtel is also building a new, bigger facility not too far from its existing location in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Its UAS business is holding steady, despite some cutbacks on existing military programs. NovAtel also announced its latest correction-service offering for Terrastar C (4 centimeter) and Terrastar A (40 centimeter).
  • Trimble introduced the MB-Two GNSS module, which delivers highly accurate GNSS-based heading plus pitch or roll in an advanced industry-standard form factor for system integrators. The MB-Two features an enhanced dual-core GNSS engine with 240 channels capable of tracking L1/L2 frequencies from the GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and BeiDou constellations. The GNSS engine supports Trimble RTX correction services, including CenterPoint RTX and RangePoint RTX, delivered worldwide via L-band satellite. The MB-Two is designed for a wide variety of applications such as unmanned vehicles, agriculture, automotive, marine and military systems.

UAV teams form, expand

PrecisionHawk announced teaming arrangements at AUVSI Xponential with Harris Corporation, Insitu and DJI. PrecisionHawk is in the business of providing highly accurate geospatial data to its customers for a number of different applications. Its software packages process aerial data into 2D or 3D products, include a library of on-demand analysis tools, and enable sharing and collaborating.

DJI has teamed up with PrecisionHawk to offer a complete agricultural analytics solution by linking DJI’s commercial-grade drone hardware to PrecisionHawk’s drone software platform, DataMapper.

The ADS-B tower with the Xtend antenna. (Photo: Harris Corp.)

The ADS-B tower with the Xtend antenna. (Photo: Harris Corp.)

At the same time, Harris and PrecisionHawk have expanded their existing relationship to provide the UAS industry with tools that will enhance operational and situational awareness for drone pilots. The two companies are also moving toward the deployment of a UAS airspace management system using technologies like PrecisionHawk’s LATAS platform.

Harris’ real-time surveillance database of manned and unmanned traffic is being built into the LATAS platform to give drone pilots a clear picture of their surroundings, while Harris is also integrating LATAS into its systems to provide visibility of drones that may be sharing the airspace to customers such as UAS test ranges and airports, and potentially to manned aircraft pilots.

Announcements from Insitu

Insitu announced a strategic alliance with PrecisionHawk to offer expanded aerial technology services across commercial and enterprise markets. The two industry leaders will offer small and large-scale services by integrating hardware and software platforms to deliver more comprehensive data capability to customers.

The companies will also leverage their participation in the FAA’s Pathfinder Program to collaborate on the research and test of new technologies to enable safe drone flight for extended and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations.

Insitu's Flying Launch and Recovery System (FLARES).

Insitu’s Flying Launch and Recovery System (FLARES).

Insitu made a number of other announcements at the Xponential show. Its FLARES launch and recovery system is an innovative solution for both launch and capture of the Insitu ScanEagle UAS. The huge quadcopter with a ScanEagle UAV hung underneath climbs to a few hundred feet, begins forward flight and the UAV is released and initiates independent powered flight.

For recovery, a cable attached to the ground is carried aloft by FLARES and tensioned by the hovering octocopter. ScanEagle then flies into the cable and is captured by a hook on the leading edge, and the UAS is recovered by ground operators. FLARES is designed to overcome use of the bulky ground catapult, which is normally used to launch ScanEagle.

Insitu also announced the formation of a separate business unit through which it will address the commercial market. The commercial unit will leverage the company’s 20-plus years of experience in unmanned systems to deliver value to the emerging unmanned commercial aerial data-collection market.

Insitu also recapped earlier activities off Alaska with Conoco-Philips in 2013 researching ice-flow and whale movements, and operations over the Paradise Fire in Washington’s Olympic National Park in September 2015. Flying in Olympic National Park, ScanEagle delivered more than 37 hours of real-time infrared video to fire incident personnel, which enabled them to pinpoint the fire’s perimeter and areas of intense heat. ScanEagle also assisted helicopter assets to evaluate water-drop locations.

Insitu is heavily involved with the FAA Pathfinder program and has been developing techniques for UAS beyond visual line of sight operations with BNSF Railway for track inspection. In its first day of operations, ScanEagle provided real-time video covering 64 miles of the 132-mile stretch of track that BNSF has designated for the exercise. ScanEagle is capable of flying for up to 24 hours at speeds of up to 80 knots.

In summary, Xponential 2016 was a huge conference with a large number of exhibitors representing a good cross-section of the UAS industry, including lots of suppliers from the navigation and guidance sector — actually, just too many to mention everyone. The exhibitors included start-up drone manufacturers and veterans alike, all seemingly motivated by the movement toward opening up airspace to commercial operations. This is an exploding industry in the U.S., but its still waiting for rules from the FAA under which to operate on a regular basis, while other countries are already soaking up market share of the emerging commercial drone business.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

This article is tagged with and posted in OEM, Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author:


Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).

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