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TC Disrupt Recap: Drone Heavyweights Share Thoughts on Industry Progress

September has been a mad month for drone news. Hot on the heels of DJI’s latest drone release came Interdrone, a gathering of the industry’s best and brightest for a few days in Las Vegas. Plenty of partnership announcements and products were unveiled.

At the same time, TC Disrupt was underway in San Fransisco. Although not totally drone focused, there was one event that took place worth catching up on if you haven’t already.

It was a panel discussion with 3DR CEO Chris Anderson, Skydio founder Adam Bry, CyPhy Works CTO Laura Major and DJI’s head of US R&D, Arnaud Thiercelin.

On the drone industry hype cycle

The early days of the drone industry have been exciting – with a huge influx of VC capital, a bunch of companies competing in both the hardware and software markets and the dramatic rise and fall of a few big hitters.

So what did the panelists have to say about where we’ve been and where we’re going?

Chris Anderson: I don’t think that the hype has necessarily died down. DJI has been tremendously successful as a result. I think what we’re seeing is a classic explosion of different companies all trying [to compete] in the space. And more quickly than anybody expected they have concentrated around a global giant in the form of DJI.

Adam Bry: When drones came on the scene four or five years ago, it quickly kindled a lot of excitement about amazing concepts on both the consumer side and for enterprise. A big part of the story has been this gap between the concepts and what you can do with existing products.

We’re pretty optimistic that the technology has got to the point where over the next five years we’re going to see that gap close quite a bit.

On drone and data security

Referring to the US Army memo that grounded DJI drones last year, Arnaud Thiercelinsaid: I’m going to be very clear. This memo from the army was completely unfounded. But it did open up our eyes to something we need to do more: communicating and showing how transparent we are. The one thing that we fixed – we have ongoing bug fixing – we hired a private company to investigate all of our source code and put together a report on explaining what’s happening and what’s possible or not on the user side.

Our remote connection was always encrypted and always has been. But security is a cat and mouse game. What’s important is the response time. DJI takes an average of 48 hours to fix bugs, which is very powerful.

Chris Anderson: It’s worth noting that Arnoud is right: the concerns were factually unfounded and I don’t actually think DJI did anything wrong. This is political. DJI is an extremely successful high tech Chinese company. And we’re in a climate in the midst of trade wars and tariffs and crazy tweets coming out of the White House, where just being a successful Chinese company is almost enough to spur paranoia. I wish it weren’t the case, but that’s the political climate we live in.

Chris Anderson: DJI is very similar to the Apple model. Android is a more open model and that’s what we do with DroneCode.

The standards right now largely consist with common communications standards, like Mavlink. Then there’s compliance with the FAA regs. That’s something we’re all working on together.

I think you’re going to see it play out very much like mobile. We’re [in the drone industry] about at the equivalent of 2010.

Arnaud Thiercelin: The first and most important standard is Remote ID: Identifying what’s flying and when it’s flying. It’s an ongoing conversation to define that standard. We’re trying to make sure that this works out for the best for the drone industry.

This is a conversation that needs to happen with every actor in the industry.

Then there’s parachute systems on top of drones. The FAA is making one of the requirements of BVLOS that you have the capacity to have a safety mechanism in case of a critical platform failure. This comes in a variety of colors, sizes, deployment speeds etc, and is another standardization that is happening.

And then there’s defining what drone autonomy is. That’s definitely the next step for drones in terms of mass adoption.

Laura Major: An angle that we’re looking at is the beyond line of site control of drones. There’s a lot of work to be done in the regulatory environment to enable that as well, so that you can have a single operator in one command center, controlling hundreds or even thousands of drones across the country or the globe.

Chris Anderson: All the economic efficiencies of automation come when you increase the ratio of people to machines. Right now FAA regs mean it’s one pilot to one drone. So we basically haven’t saved anything in terms of the human cost. Once we can go to one to many, we can start to see the economic efficiencies.

Adam Bry: I think we’re still in the first innings of drones as a category. In terms of phones, we’re closer to the brick phones.

There is still a lot a fundamental innovation left to get to the kind of products that are going to realize the visions that are out there. Standards are part of that. But the technology needs to progress quite a bit to get to the point where it’s useful.

On regulations

Arnaud Thiercelin: So far regulation has been helping the industry. The FAA isn’t here to block anything, they’re coming up with reasonable requests for the severity of the risks you may be taking with these operations.

Adam Bry: Regulation has been a little bit if a scapegoat for the industry but the trendline is very positive. Before starting Skydio I was working on Project Wing at Google X. In 2012 the fear there was that the FAA was going to shut the whole thing down and that there would be no commercial.

But step by step there have been reasonable paths that are reflective of the state of products. As the products get better, the regulations get more permissive. And we’re pretty optimistic that that’s going to continue.

Chris Anderson: It’s worth noting – although I agree that the regulators have been remarkably flexible and forward thinking – we pushed them to move faster by using exemptions for consumer use and getting millions of drones up in the air. If it wasn’t for DJI and 3DR in the early days, there wouldn’t be so many people out there thinking about commercial applications. By the time the FAA realized that drones were a thing, there were so many out there that they couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.

Posted by Malek Murison is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for tech trends and innovation. He handles product reviews, major releases and keeps an eye on the enthusiast market for DroneLife.

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