A New Normal – The Advancement of Unmanned Systems in a COVID-19 World

June 30, 2020

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The Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia and McGuireWoods Consulting, with experts from across the unmanned systems sectors, held a discussion on how COVID-19 is spurring the growth of unmanned systems and how, and what, policies can help continue to advance the economic success of the industry in the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Presentation Materials


The Advancement of Unmanned Systems in a COVID-19 World – Key Takeaways

On June 30, the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia and McGuireWoods Consulting hosted a webinar exploring the advancement of unmanned systems in a COVID-19 world, with experts from across the unmanned systems sectors, including ground, aerial and maritime. Panelists were joined by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, who spoke about Virginia’s efforts to lead the advancement of unmanned technologies.

“I believe Virginia is uniquely positioned in this sector because of our higher education facilities, our workforce and our unparalleled transportation network,” she noted. “Virginia’s Office of Innovation and Research is working on how we can solve transportation issues creatively, how we can show others around the world that Virginia is open for business and that the transportation resources we bring to the table are unmatched.”

Also joining the panel was Anthony Wood, Head of Innovation at the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA). Wood echoed Secretary Valentine’s sentiments on sharing innovation within the Commonwealth, noting that collaboration between industries is key for harnessing relationships and educating not only agencies and suppliers, but also policymakers to create thoughtful legislation and regulation around the unmanned sector to encourage growth.

Key Takeaways

Ground – Partnerships are key for growth. The autonomous vehicle (AV) industry has felt the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this has led to consolidation and increased partnerships between leading companies. The pandemic has also led to more consumer enthusiasm for AV technology, with a potential for a societal shift in the way we travel and commute. In order for the AV sector to grow on the road, a seamless and reliable wireless network is more important than ever. Connected vehicles have the potential to communicate with each other, roads, bridges, buildings and more, but COVID-19 has shown the enormity of the digital divide in the U.S., especially in rural areas and underserved communities. Important work needs to be done within municipalities to combat this issue and other regulatory hurdles. Finally, research and development is underway at the university level, exploring ethical questions in software that is fed into these ground-based systems, including autonomous manufacturing robots, autonomous and computer-aided surgery, autonomous harvesting equipment on farms, and more. The same teams are also working with policymakers to help them understand these systems. This dual approach will lead to well-balanced policies and regulations.

Aerial – UAS technology has proven its effectiveness, but federal regulation is lagging. COVID-19 has opened a myriad of opportunities for drones, including contactless delivery of medical supplies, grocery staples, hot meals, cleaning supplies, books from local libraries and games and activities for kids. Orders have increased during the pandemic, indicating a positive reaction to the new technology, while helping local businesses keep and gain customers. In addition, Dominion Energy has seen increased acceptance of drones as the technology has been used to conduct inspections, gather data and distribute that data to the right people in the midst of the pandemic when manned inspections had to stop. Even with the effectiveness of the new technology, the regulatory framework for drones is advancing slowly at the federal level. Beyond visual line of sight waivers are hard to receive, and in most cases the FAA still requires visual observers as even with the waiver. The FAA has not waived regulations to allow operations for compensation or hire without a Part 135 air carrier certificate, which has prevented companies from conducting pandemic relief operations even for humanitarian purposes. Despite these challenges, the FAA is moving forward with varying initiatives, with a couple of proposed rules expected to be made final later this year.

Maritime – Complex laws and regulations lead to slower adoption of technology, but forward progress exists. Compared to the ground and air, unmanned systems in the maritime industry have proceeded at a slower pace. The complexity of the maritime world – not as cohesive as a single country, trading partners from all over the world, different rules for different vessels, different ways to assess liabilities – only becomes more complex when new technology is introduced. It’s a slow moving process to try and recalibrate for new technology. Efforts are being made to get the international maritime organizations and conventions in line. The biggest hurdle in the commercial world is capital investment. Trade has slowed with the pandemic, and with vessels in service for 25+ years, it will be some time before many are redesigned with new technology. The vessels will also need to adapt to local cultures and navigational needs of a particular area, since each country is able to change laws in water around their land mass. The Navy has put more emphasis on unmanned systems in recent years, but it will take some time before adoption will have a commercial application that makes sense in the international world.