May 2, 2022
By Tom Atwood
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) brought its annual conference, XPONENTIAL, to Orlando, Apr. 25-28. The event invites industry innovators, technology experts and end users together to experience new technology that is solving real world problems, from safety and defense, to energy and infrastructure, business, construction, health, and the environment. AUVSI’s Xponential 2022, held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando Florida, was attended by several thousand technology professionals and robotics enthusiasts eager to take in the exhibits of more than 500 firms specializing in robotics, AI, sensors, electronics, and drones (land, air, & sea).
“As we look forward to the next 50 years, it’s easy to imagine how seamlessly these systems and technologies will be integrated into our daily lives,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI. “To arrive at that future we need to stay focused on the intersection between people and technology. That’s why we chose the theme Where Autonomy Meets Society for XPONENTIAL 2022, to emphasize the innovation happening along that critical juncture to ensure these systems provide lasting public and economic benefits for society.”
The convention featured keynote speakers, panel presentations, educational programs, specialized workshops, networking opportunities, an extensive exhibitor hall, as well as co-located events by partners like the FAA. The first large-scale, live Xponential since 2019, the atmosphere was electric. Exhibits were inspiring, and ranged from robot dogs to aerial and maritime drones to the latest manufacturing technologies. Also present were educators and conference speakers representing robotics-related STEM educational programs.
We interviewed several leaders in key industries and will be posting the interviews soon, so please stay tuned to this site for coverage of those. In discussions with companies on the show floor, trends emerged that cast a strong light on the future. Here’s a quick review of what we saw:
Trend #1: Many Exhibiting Firms Less than 10 Years Old
Approximately 515 firms exhibited at Orlando Xponential 2022; most of these were new companies. The overwhelming majority of the firms we visited were created in the last decade. The “New Technology” robotics industry is vibrant, booming and run by a preponderance of young engineers and entrepreneurs. Though no slight to the many companies that have built the U.S. IT and unmanned systems industries over the decades, enabling American technology to be the envy of the world, the latest generation of firms exhibiting at Xponential were strikingly of relatively recent origin. These young, inspired, energetic CEOs, engineers, program managers and marketing people imparted a sense of dynamism to the event.
Trend #2: Strong U.S. Technological Competitiveness
Accelerating advances by U.S. firms in electronics and sensor development, miniaturization, and AI-assisted functionality showed strong U.S. technological competitiveness. Rather than parading leading technology developed in Asia, the companies showing their offerings at Xponential 2022 were overwhelmingly U.S-based, and our strong impression was that the products and services they displayed were overwhelmingly conceived, designed, manufactured and marketed to the U.S. and the world from the U.S. This underscores the continued competitive edge of American ingenuity, inventiveness and initiative in the rapidly expanding world of robotics and AI, where Moore’s Law continues to prevail.
Trend #3: Robot Dogs are On the Move
Beyond performing airport, construction and military base perimeter surveillance, robot dogs will directly assist soldiers, firemen and police, protecting both human and canine lives. Sniffing out bombs and IEDs will no longer be the sole province of biological canines. Robot dogs were seen in larger numbers than ever before at Xponential, with impressive, robust demonstrations by Boston Dynamics and Ghost Robotics (pictured above), and by Unitree, a Chinese company. We appear to be at the beginning of a blossoming in robot dog development and commercialization that will eventually make them a commonplace in many different environments, not just in the military but across all of society.
Trend #4: New Generation of Large Scale Autonomous Hybrid-Powered eVTOLs
Aergility’s hybrid-powered eVTOL/fixed-wing aircraft, capable of autonomously transporting payloads of up to 600 pounds, pioneers a new generation of autonomous freight transport. Crowds of business leaders thronged Aergility’s both, and our impression was that the military was also taking a keen interest. The full-scale aircraft is “hybrid-powered”. A kerosene-burning generator powers the plane’s electric vertical lift rotors, and a tractor prop pulls the aircraft like any conventional airplane, which efficiently flies using “managed autorotation technology”. This pioneering design may revolutionize autonomous airborne freight logistics.
Trend #5: New Generation of Operational Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs)
MARTAC’s unmanned surface vessels that cruise and turn at record speeds are deployed and operational, showing that a new maritime technological era is well underway. MARTAC’s family of autonomous boats can be controlled from anywhere in the world through a choice of communications technology. A 38-foot version can cruise at up to 80 knots and make tight, high-velocity turns in the water that generate more than 6Gs of force. MARTAC USVs can go into “gator mode” (decks awash), and lurk just beneath the surface to avoid detection. Will this forever change the status quo of unmanned surface vessels (USVs)?
Robotics-World will offer additional in-depth coverage of these trends in future releases, so please stay tuned! Photos courtesy of NREF Senior Editor Jim O’Brien.