By John Patterson
With the sound of airplanes rumbling overhead on a cloudless Friday, Loudoun’s unmanned aircraft enthusiasts met in Sterling to discuss unmanned flight systems. The event, part of Loudoun’s Small Business Week program, came as drones are helping to bring state and county economies to greater heights.
In June 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed Executive Order 43, creating an Unmanned Systems Commission to bring private and public sector experts together for long term planning on how to make Virginia a national leader in unmanned systems. Last year, Virginia ranked as the eighth largest concentration of unmanned system firms in the United States, most of which were located in Northern Virginia.
“The state of Virginia has invested heavily in making unmanned systems a high priority in the business world,” said Rich Bensinger, director of Strategic Growth at Robinson Aviation.
Bensinger served as moderator for a panel of experts from different parts of the unmanned systems industry. It included Graham Keithley, an associate at the legal firm Baker McKenzie who specializes in aviation regulation; Fred Briggs, CEO of Teq Strategy LLC and board of directors member for the Drone User Group Network; JC Silvey, a United Airlines Boeing 767 flight officer and professional drone videographer; and Dr. Christopher Vo, an artificial intelligence specialist who works with drones.
Expertise wasn’t limited to the panelists’ table. The audience of more than 50 included professionals and hobbyists alike from the drone community. Many of their questions focused on the bureaucracy of piloting an unmanned vehicle, as the DC area is one of the most restrictive airspaces in the country, and Dulles Airport is a Class B, or entirely forbidden, airspace. Furthermore, Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations includes numerous restrictions on drone use, such as bans on drone use at night, or one pilot controlling multiple drones at the same time.
“The FAA has open doors for commercial unmanned aircraft, with a bunch of waivers for the rules they’ve imposed now. Push those boundaries,” Keithley said. “I think this industry is unstoppable, we’re already up in the air.”
Loudoun County is on the frontier of drone use in the commonwealth.
“Loudoun invested heavily, in my opinion, when they put an aviation component to their strategic plan. And so when you look at the targeted sectors that Loudoun is focusing on, aviation’s one of them,” Bensinger said. “Now unmanned systems are front and center in that strategic plan for Loudoun business.”
Speakers said they expected the role drones to only grow in importance to businesses.
“My main comment is to look towards the future,” Vo said. The scientist designed “a drone aircraft carrier” that can contain more than 20 drones, has a robotic arm that places them in charging cubbies, and allows for automated drone takeoff and landing. “You’re going to see a lot of people are going to lose interest in drones, but … the stable ideas are going to be things like inspections, surveying, those things are going to stick around for a long time.”
All the participants and panelists came for similar reasons of pushing the industry forward.
“We wanted to see what’s going on in the industry,” attendee Jack Strange said. Strange is Federal Aviation Administration Safety inspector. “Let people know what’s available to them.”
“I’m genuinely humbled by the knowledge in this room, the passion that exists here. There have been a lot of questions about the 107 certification. … I recently went through it, I just wanted to offer myself as a resource,” attendee Steve Jarrell, owner of Drone Video Partners, said.
Rick Morris, business development officer at the Department of Economic Development, concluded the panel’s question and answer session.
“We had a lot of informed people in the audience that really added to the discussion,” he said. “This is the kind of event, going forward, we’d like to have more of these to bring the community together to have a healthy discussion.”
The “Unmanned and Ready for Business” panel was part of Loudoun Small Business Week, which concluded Saturday.