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Freefly Systems' Alta drone
Freefly Systems’ Alta drone takes to the air in Washington’s North Cascades. (Credit: Freefly Systems)

Washington state officials convened the first meeting of an industry council focusing on drones and related businesses today, after a seminar on the promise and potential perils of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Focusing on this isn’t just about aerospace and UAVs, it’s about a whole variety of industries that benefit,” Brian Bonlender, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, told a gathering of business executives, researchers and other experts at the offices of K&L Gates in downtown Seattle.

About a dozen of the attendees went from the large-group gathering to the inaugural meeting of the Unmanned Systems Industry Council, led by John Thornquist, head of Washington state’s Office of Aerospace.

Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, are expected to have an impact on fields ranging from package delivery to agriculture, media production and public safety.  Nationwide, the UAS industry is expected to create 100,000 jobs and add more than $82 billion to the U.S. economy over the decade ahead.

Washington state companies are playing lead roles in the industry – thanks to Amazon’s efforts to develop a drone-based delivery system, and thanks to Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary that provides fixed-wing drones for the U.S. military.

Lesser-known Evergreen State companies are also part of the mix. For example, Applewhite Aero does intermediate-scale UAS engineering. Echodyne is working on a radar system that could be installed on drones. Freefly Systems builds high-end drones as well as image stabilization hardware for cinematography.


Those smaller companies were represented at today’s informational seminar, and some of the representatives attended the informal council meeting as well. The meeting even attracted a robotics expert from Silicon Valley who’s working on a project for Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Like Amazon, Alphabet is developing and testing commercial delivery drones.

Neither Amazon nor Insitu sent a representative today, but Thornquist said he’s getting in touch with both those companies about the council.

Thornquist said the Unmanned Systems Industry council, which is modeled after the Washington State Space Coalition, will cast a wide net.

“Everyone’s focus is on UAVs, but we’re trying to do more than that,” he told GeekWire. For example, the members include researchers at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory who are working on autonomous underwater vehicles.

Thornquist expects the council to meet quarterly, with the next gathering expected in December.

The council is meant to serve as a clearinghouse and a channel for industry concerns that can be addressed by government actions or academic research. “I’m hoping we can take issues that you have and move them up the food chain,” Thornquist told council members.

Tom Hagen, vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Cascade Chapter, said the council’s mission is consistent with his own organization’s mission. “It furthers cooperation and advocacy for the industry in the Northwest,” he told GeekWire.

Image: Rick Larsen
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., discusses drones in Seattle. (GeekWire photo)

One of the big issues has to do with broadening the scope of drone operations. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration laid out its rules for flying commercial drones that weigh less than 55 pounds, but those rules don’t allow for drones to fly beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.

During today’s seminar, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., listed beyond-line-of-sight operation as one of his top four priorities for the drone industry going forward, along with drone traffic management, multiple-drone operations and clearance for drone deliveries. All four of those issues are key for the kind of delivery system that Amazon has in mind.

Last month, Amazon said it has been “highly involved” in a NASA/FAA project to develop a traffic management system for low-flying drones. Amazon is also represented on a 35-member national Drone Advisory Committee, which had its first meeting on Friday in Washington, D.C.

Today, Larsen noted that Amazon laid out detailed suggestions for managing delivery drones more than a year ago. And although he shied away from making an endorsement, the lawmaker told GeekWire that Amazon’s concept is “one idea that’s been thought through.”

“It helps Amazon,” Larsen said, “but it helps everybody.”

Clarification for 6:20 p.m. PT Sept. 23: Thornquist says Amazon wasn’t made aware of the existence of the newly formed industry council before this week’s event, but his office is in touch with Amazon about future meetings.

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