Inside the Semi-Secret Meeting That's Reshaping America's Drone Industry
At Robofest, first things first. First there’s the wine, provided courtesy of one of the Washington, D.C. area’s most influential aerospace consultancies. Once you’ve filled your plastic cup—this affair is more backyard barbecue than society event—there’s the meet and greet, an opportunity to check out the credentials of those around you: an aerospace industry executive, the economic development chief for a western U.S. state, a dean of engineering for a prestigious American university, several D.C. think tankers, lobbyists, lawyers. But the very first person you meet is Darryl Jenkins, chairman of the American Aviation Institute, consultant to airlines and aviation companies and host and creator of today’s event.
Jenkins is a well-known personality in the aerospace and aviation realms. He’s been in the room for more or less every major airline merger and bankruptcy restructuring over the past few decades. He’s spent his career lecturing to and on the aerospace industry, having taught for several semesters at George Washington University while publishing countless papers and research reports as well as one book on the industry. He’s the guy that goes on Bloomberg TV and CNBC to explain these things to the world. Jenkins knows a whole lot of influential people in the aviation and aerospace worlds. A lot of those people are here at Robofest today. They, like Jenkins, share a keen interest in the next generation of aerospace technology—the various unmanned aerial systems commonly and collectively known as drones.
It’s a pitch-perfect afternoon in late October when Robofest takes place. The setting is Jenkins’ secluded home in the Shenandoah foothills. This year’s event is the second in two years, already known as an off-the-record social date that is evolving into an industry movement that Jenkins hopes will pave the way forward for the burgeoning commercial drone industry. (Fortune obtained special permission to write about the event.) On the agenda: An open discussion on how to best move the industry forward, and—of course—a bit of drone flying. But first, there’s wine and then lunch. No one wants to reshape an entire industry on an empty stomach.
Last year’s Robofest was mostly a recreational and social affair, Jenkins says. This year—with some of the more influential minds within the industry, state and federal government, and academia all gathered on his back patio—Jenkins wants to do more than just talk about what can be done. The drone industry largely sees itself as hamstrung by an overreaching and underfunded Federal Aviation Administration. The industry believes it is increasingly outgunned by foreign competitors operating in more permissive regulatory environments. Jenkins and his assembled cast of industry veterans, lawyers, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, and government insiders want to change that.
“When I think about all the airline mergers and bankruptcies I’ve been through with this industry, I feel like an old man,” Jenkins says, calling his 80 or so guests to order. “When I think about UAS technology, I’m 16 again.” As his guests finish tucking into plates of fried chicken and pasta salad, Jenkins reminds his guests that the point of this gathering is not to sit around throwing rocks at the FAA, an activity that has become an organized sport for advocates of a commercialized drone industry. Today is about hammering out some concrete steps that the industry can take in the near term. It’s about keeping the industry marching forward despite bureaucratic inertia.
Jenkins turns the floor over to his keynote speaker, the former CEO of a major Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company and vocal supporter of the drone industry. His comments set off a spirited discussion about what the industry needs, how it can nudge the FAA in the right direction, and—most importantly—what the industry can do on its own without help from the FAA. (The theme of this year’s Robofest: “Doing it Ourselves.”)
No single voice or interest dominates the discussion. Among those that speak up are academics, former FAA officials, aerospace industry executives, drone entrepreneurs looking to build new companies around UAS technologies and services, local law enforcement, and U.S. intelligence employees. One is a lawyer who specializes in the nascent new practice of drone law. Another represents the newly formed D.C. drone lobby backed by Google and Amazon. There are even realtors interested in using drones for aerial photography, which is currently prohibited by the FAA, and a sailing coach interested in applying drones to maritime sport.
Above all, there is money present. Representatives of a $2.2 billion investment fund aimed specifically at drone infrastructure—such as air traffic control technologies to allow drones to safely operate alongside conventional aircraft in U.S. airspace—weigh in during the discussion. For more than an hour the discussion ping-pongs around Jenkins’ crowded, sun-dappled patio.
There is disagreement but also plenty of consensus. The large drone industry is well represented on Capitol Hill through the defense and aerospace industries, but the small UAS industry—representing aircraft that weigh less than 55 lbs.—needs to better organize and represent itself, the group agrees. Small UAS need size-specific regulations so that a five-pound drone flying at 300 feet is treated differently than a large drone. And most of all, the industry needs to work with the FAA, rather than rail against it—otherwise, little progress will occur.
Jenkins closes the discussion by informing his guests that this will be the last Robofest held at his home. Though it’s only the second such event, it’s already straining the capacity of his generous patio space. Jenkins says he’s working with universities in the D.C. area to formalize and host the next event sometime in early 2016. The plan: bring today’s agenda to a much larger audience. It would be a mistake to wait any longer, he says.
“We’re at an inflection point,” says one self-described serial entrepreneur who launched and sold four technology companies. He’s traveled to Robofest from Michigan to hear what others in the industry have to say and for the chance to swap business cards and make a few new contacts in the industry. Naturally, his latest startup is a drone company, one that would provide drone products and services as well as training and certification for pilots—as soon as standards for such certification are codified by the FAA, that is. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “But the time for this industry is now.”
The sun is getting low now and the breeze has died down—it’s finally time to fly. From car trunks and duffel bags and hard plastic carrying cases, out come the drones—from small quad-rotors to massive eight-armed octo-copters in varying shapes and sizes. The entire gathering looks on as one machine after another rises into the sky. In minutes, everyone is 16 again.