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2015: The Year of the Drone Conference

Krista Almanzan
FAA's Jim Williams at the Drones Data X Conference

Credit Krista Almanzan helps drone uses know where they can and can't fly.

Drones have moved from corners in the tech and model aircraft worlds to warranting conferences of their own.  Right now there’s a major one underway in Atlanta.  It comes on the heels of the Drones Data X Conference that wrapped up this weekend with in Santa Cruz. 


The Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz is normally home to the D-league basketball team, the Santa Cruz Warriors.  But on Friday it was all about drones.

That’s where I met Randy Braun, Director of Produce Experience at DJI, a drone manufacturer and developer.  He was standing inside a net tent demonstrating DJI’s newest drone the Phantom 3.

“Drones are the consumer product, the electronic product of 2015.  There’s a show almost every day now.  We’re all traveling.  I see these people a lot in the trade show circuit now because they are so popular,” said Braun.

As he sees it, drones are moving past the phase where it’s enough to be shiny and new, and into a one that’s all about being useful.

“We have a lot of industries for instance, agriculture, forestry, mining, search and rescue  or all of the first responding.  Everyone is starting to look into drones to be more efficient with their work,” said Braun.


Australian company Propeller Aerobotics was one of the dozen plus businesses with a booth at conference.  It offers online mapping tool for all the data drones can collect.  Managing Director Francis Vierboom demonstrated the technology on a large monitor where he pulled up a map of a quarry in Sydney, Australia.

A drone has photographed this quarry in a grid pattern.  Vierbroom zoomed in on the image, drew a box around a big pile of gravel and then instantly calculate how much gravel is there.

“It’s already a big business back in Aus where there’s a big drone industry that’s had regulations in place for more than 10 years now and as things come online here in America there’s going to be really interesting commercial opportunities for companies like that to start getting cheaper aerial data,” said Vierboom.


The Federal Aviation Administration has released draft rules that create a new type of pilot certificate making it easier to operate drones commercially. The rules will be finalized within the next sixteen months.

At the conference, several hundred people filled the stadium seating to hear from Jim Williams of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office. 

He’s said a big challenge has been a new breed of hobbyist who don’t understand the rules.

“What’s happened with the advent of the quadcopter is all the sudden instead of having intimate aviation knowledge in order the fly a remote control aircraft, all the sudden right out of the box you’re an aviator. The aircraft essentially flies itself,” said Williams.  (You can listen to Williams' complete conference remarks and the audience Q&A above).

That’s where new tools like AirMap can help hobbyists and commercial operators alike.  “AirMap is a tool for people to fly safely, legally and with minimal hassle,” said Ben Marcus, CEO and co-founder of AirMap who attended the conference.

He pulled up the website on his phone.  It showed a map with circles around the local airspace relevant to a drone operator, so they know where they can and can’t fly.

“In our case, the closest airport is here.  We can click on the red circle, and we can see that’s the Watsonville Municipal Airport.  If we were within that small red circle we would need to give notice to that operator before we flew,” said Marcus.

He was one of 60 CEOs who stuck around for the VIP weekend portion of the conference.  That’s when conference organizers hoped to sell top level executives on Santa Cruz as a place to do business. 

Marcus said he has deep roots in Los Angeles where his company is based, but he will now likely visit Santa Cruz more often. 

As for the Drones Data X Conference itself, there’s already talk of doing it again next year. 

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.
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