It’s been a big year for unmanned systems in Virginia.

The country’s tallest drone park opened to fanfare on campus; the state won a spot in a major federal drone-integration program that led to a series of seminal operations; a student-designed autonomous watermelon harvester took the top prize in a national competition; and Virginia Tech’s team survived the brutal first round of a contest to map the ocean floor with autonomous underwater vehicles.

On the heels of those accomplishments and many others, researchers and industry leaders gathered this week to reflect on the field’s remarkable progress, its potential for the region, and the challenges ahead.

This is the second year the Ridge and Valley chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International — the world’s largest unmanned-systems advocacy group — has hosted its annual conference at the Inn at Virginia Tech.  

The event’s theme this year — At the Intersection — captured the synergy and the tensions inherent in the autonomy boom: human and machine, sensing and control, flexibility and security, and the interfaces of land, sea, and air.

A keynote lecture by Boeing’s Peter Kunz anchored the two-day event. Kunz is the chief technologist for Boeing’s HorizonX and NeXt divisions, which, respectively, explore new business models for emerging aerospace applications and incubate innovative technological solutions.

Danette Allen, a senior technologist for intelligent flight systems at NASA’s Langley Research Center, gave another of the conference’s highly anticipated presentations. Allen directs the center’s Autonomy Incubator, where a group of researchers from different fields collaborate on the development of intelligent machines.   

The two-day conference also highlighted the remarkable work being done at Virginia Tech; faculty and students from the departments of aerospace and ocean engineering; electrical and computer engineering; mechanical engineering; and plant pathology, physiology, and weed science gave presentations, led panels, and shared their diverse expertise on the technology that has permitted the field’s accelerating development. 

“We’re seeing several of the technologies that support autonomous systems mature simultaneously, and it’s put us on the cusp of some huge changes in the way we gather information, move goods, and, eventually, travel,” said Jon Greene, the associate director for strategic development at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, one of the event’s sponsors.

Greene is also a senior advisor to the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and one of the Ridge and Valley chapter’s founding members. “Safe and economically viable unmanned systems are within reach,” he said.

The conference’s packed schedule was punctuated by demonstrations and networking opportunities — particularly for students, who had the opportunity to connect with the Virginia Tech faculty working across the spectrum of unmanned-systems research and representatives from some of the field’s leading companies.

Attendees had the opportunity to test their flight skills in the Virginia Tech Drone Park, compete in a drone race, and see demonstrations by a fleet of automated vehicles — including Asimov, Torc Robotics' self-driving Lexus that famously crisscrossed the country last summer.

The first AUVSI Ridge and Valley conference, held last year, attracted attendees and speakers from all over the country, including Wing CEO James Ryan Burgess, who was back in Blacksburg in August for unprecedented drone deliveries to a local home, which the company conducted with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

“At the Intersection is another great opportunity for unmanned systems professionals to learn more about the current state of the industry," Nanci Hardwick, the CEO of Aeroprobe and the president of AUVSI Ridge and Valley, said in the organization’s press release. “Plus, it calls attention to all the fantastic companies and assets we have here in the New River Valley.”

In addition to the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, the event’s sponsors include the College of Engineering, the Office of Economic Development, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.