XPONENTIAL 2019 Review

XPONENTIAL (AUVSI for those of us who have been around for a while), has come and gone for another year. 2019 was just as busy as previous years. The same core exhibitors were there this year as in past years and there is a fair amount of churn at the periphery. Lots of small companies that show up for a year, never to be seen again.

I think that there are two reasons for the churn. The first is a lot of small companies underestimate the difficulty of this business. You can’t just slap an open source autopilot, a few bits of carbon fiber, and a couple hobby-grade speed controllers and motors, and expect to make a go of it. Its just too easy – and if its easy for you its easy for your competitors. A lot of the hobby plus exhibitors do not survive long enough to return.

The other reason for the churn is XPONENTIAL is probably not the best show to sell UAVs. If you sell UAVs to fire fighters then you want to be at the show where they sell fire engines and other relevant equipment; if you want to sell to farmers then you best be at the show where they sell combines. I don’t think that end users show up at XPONENTIAL. Its just not worth their while.

One of the most notable absences this year is Intel. After a few years of trying to make their name in the UAV industry, they were completely gone from the show floor. It wasn’t long ago when they had the largest booth in the room. They came, they saw, they said “no thanks.” Yet another indication that air will not be thick with drones any time soon. In order for Intel to move the needle on their corporate revenue they need to be pursuing opportunities that represent hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. The UAV industry simply isn’t large enough.

The show has generally scaled back many of the events. The big party was cancelled and the exhibitor’s reception was more muted than in previous years. There used to be a reception each afternoon and those are gone. There were a few jugglers and mini golf one evening. The lunches have been gone for a while now. I can’t say that I miss any of these events. They just took away from meeting time.

The show seemed about the same size as last year and about as busy. A quick count of the app shows 686 exhibitors this year, up from 670 last year. Our meeting schedule was just as full this year as last. The Chinese pavilion was almost non-existent this year; four or so booths down from a dozen or so last year. There were no unsold booths on the show floor map, unlike last year when there were a handful.

One noticeable trend was multirotors with on-board engine generators offering a few hours of endurance. There were about a dozen or so of these vehicles.

Bell helicopter had a mock up of their highly improbable air taxi. If this isn’t a twenty-million dollar vehicle, I don’t know what is. When a Cessna 172, the most basic of aircraft whose design cost was amortized decades ago, costs 300-thousand dollars, how can this monster be anything but expensive? It’s a lot cheaper to build a manually piloted system than it is an autonomous one.

Iris automation announced availability of their vision-based sense and avoid system. This is not a cheap system. The software alone is ten-thousand dollars per year. To date, no certifying authority has allowed a UAV to fly BVLOS based on the air traffic separation information it provides. Further, a single camera only provides a limited field of view. So, UAV operators are going to have to argue that this limitation is no worse than the limited view of an aircraft. Either that or your UAV will have to bristle with cameras. It is sad that the regulators insist on solving this problem the hardest, and worst, way possible. A position beacon, such as Flarm, would turn this into a much more manageable problem.

As usual, AUVSI delivered excellent value to the industry in 2019. Booth prices are reasonable, attendance excellent, and the attendees represented a wide cross section of the industry. Face to face contact is still the best way to build and maintain relationships. No other show comes even close to the effectiveness of XPONENTIAL in this regard. In fact, there really is no second-place show in this industry. All the others fall embarrassingly short of the value found in Chicago.

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