Drone World Expo – Gretchen West Speaks Out

gretchen-westWe wanted to find out more about the success of Drone World Expo and what’s in store for this year’s event, so we interviewed Gretchen West Senior Advisor of Innovation and Technology Hogan Lovells; Drone World Expo Master of Ceremonies.

1. What was your main takeaway from last year’s Drone World Expo ?

Drone World Expo caters specifically to helping commercial end users understand the value and benefits of using drones in their business operations, and while many other conferences talk about end users, the Drone World Expo audience is truly made up of end users eager to learn.  The attendee list last year was impressive with stakeholders from dozens of different industries.  I’m looking forward to an even larger and more eager audience at this year’s event.

2. A lot has happened since last year’s DWE – what is your view of the FAA’s progress in the last 12 months ?

Over the past year, the FAA reached many milestones to more broadly enable commercial operations of drones.  With their primary focus being on safety, the FAA mandated registration, began accelerated rule-making on operating over people, created the Drone Advisory Committee, and enacted Part 107 allowing more flexibility for commercial operators all with safety of operations in mind.  Although these are great steps forward for the industry, there are still many operations for large enterprise commercial end users that are restricted which makes it difficult for these potential customers to adopt drone technology.  End users that want to operate beyond visual line of sight, over people, at night and other expanded operations have to file waivers with the FAA for approval, and thus far, for some of these operations, the waivers have been more difficult to achieve than approvals under the Section 333 exemption process.  The FAA mindset is slowly adapting to recognize that drones for commercial operations should be regulated differently than manned aircraft, but the shift in thinking is taking too long for this industry to grow and thrive.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that we will continue to see changes and shifts in how the FAA responds to our industry, likely both good and bad, but they’ve committed to working with industry and that is a great step forward for even broader commercial operations.

3. And apart from the changes in regulation, what do you think were the most significant developments in the past year ?

While drone technology has been around for decades, primarily used by the military and government, the commercial industry is still new, green and developing. Over the last year, we’ve seen swings in corporate activity with investors bringing capital to the market, then pulling back, then aggressively returning. We’ve seen larger companies acquire companies and build full service drone capabilities that are not part of their normal business operations.  For example, Intel, generally known as a chip maker, now has a variety of drone programs and services that they offer to commercial end users.  We’ve also witnessed many startups pivoting their strategies to follow market trends. An example is Sky-Futures out of the UK that has recently pivoted from solely being a service provider using their hardware to becoming a software provider.  Another trend is the rise in popularity over the concept of counter drone technology and many companies are starting to focus specifically on this new area of development. These trends will continue over the coming year, and I believe we will start to see more consolidation in the industry, more investment and a more streamlined approach to regulations and end user adoption.

4. What do you see as being the most interesting commercial use(s) for drones in the near future ? Are we really going to see the skies full of delivery drones…?

Ever since Jeff Bezos of Amazon announced they would be delivering packages via drones, drone delivery has become the talk and buzz of the industry.  But consumer drone delivery comes with many challenges from public perception and privacy issues to regulatory restrictions making this a difficult use case to implement.  Regardless, a lot of work is being done to advance the technology to make consumer drone delivery a reality, and I do believe we will get there one day.  In the meantime, specific to drone delivery, I find humanitarian drone delivery to be one of the most interesting use cases.  Drones can deliver aid after a catastrophe or drones can deliver medicine and supplies to rural areas with little access to roads and transportation. Using the technology to provide aid and support to those in need is truly a valuable use case that can also help show the general public the benefits of drone use.  Outside of delivery, there are so many industries just waiting to benefit from drone use – from construction to mining to security to energy to filmmaking – drones can enhance business operations, create a safer work environment and reduce costs.

5. What excites you most about the forthcoming second edition of Drone World Expo ?

The second annual Drone World Expo is already shaping up to be the premier commercial drone event of the year and it’s perfectly located in the heart of Silicon Valley where much of the technology is being developed.  The program is robust and full of educational sessions dedicated specifically to educating end users. There will also be many interesting case studies from commercial end users where they can educate existing industry stakeholders about their needs and requirements for successful implementation and use of drones.  I believe that the commercial end user community is the most powerful voice in our industry and they are under-represented.  I’m excited to network with this community, educate them on the value of drones and help them adopt the technology to truly create a sustainable drone market.


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