The Next Generation

How Seattle innovators are leading the new race into space.

Ever since the Boeing-centric aerospace cluster in the Puget Sound region emerged as one of the world’s leading centers of aviation, everyone has been looking for the next great industry to power the economy.

They may well have found it in roughly the same place. Seattle’s next tech-intense, opportunity-rich, risk-intensive business cluster may be based on the ground, but the action is up in the heavens, roughly defined as anywhere from low-Earth orbit — 90 to 600 miles up — to the moon and even to Mars.

That space is potentially a big business deal, and that this region is potentially a big deal in it, may come as a surprise to those who reveled in the golden age of space exploration — the Mercury and Gemini missions and the Apollo voyages to the moon — only to see national interest in space wane during the intervening decades. It’s also not evident, given the region’s limited legacy in that golden era, that Seattle would necessarily be a major player in a revival of the space sector.

But there is a revival and Seattle is a player.

“We’re not at the beginning of something,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources, the Redmond firm that sees a future in mining asteroids. “We’re in the thick of it.”

What’s especially noteworthy about the space industry of 2016 is that it’s a real business with real revenues, not the stuff of science fiction movies or dreamy notions about what might be possible “someday.” While some companies are in the development stage, others already have paying customers and still others are close to making the transition.

Kent-based Blue Origin, the secretive company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, made history in November when  the New Shepard, a rocket  it had launched into space, used hydraulically actuated fins and a reignited engine to slow itself enough for  a controlled, vertical landing for the first time. The ability to return a rocket home safely for reuse promises to substantially reduce the cost of space flight. “This is a new golden age of space exploration,” says Bezos.

Blue Origin plans to offer flights to space tourists, possibly within two years. The BE-4 engine, a larger version of the New Shepard’s engine, will likely propel the launch system under development by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

Spaceflight Industries, which has moved its headquarters from Tukwila to Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, has  put 80 satellites into orbit for customers and is under contract for 130 more. It even publishes a public price list for its launch services: Getting a 100-kilogram satellite placed into low-Earth orbit will set you back about $4 million.

Planetary Resources, meanwhile, has   sent satellites to space to demonstrate its technology for surveying and mining asteroids for minerals and water; a Kickstarter campaign raised more than $1.5 million by offering public access to a space telescope and even outer-space selfies. Also under development: a hydrogen refueling station in outer space.

Companies like these, led by a new generation of innovative entrepreneurs, represent the core of what amounts to a Seattle space-industry cluster. “We are home to several relatively small but really interesting and notable companies,” says Alex Pietsch, former director of the governor’s aerospace office and now associate vice president of industry relations at Washington State University. “There’s lots of opportunity for growth in that sector, although I think that growth is going to  be organic and take some time.”

Certainly the region has all the hallmarks and validations of a legitimate and viable cluster:

• There’s a regional trade group — the Washington State Space Coalition — whose members meet to connect (although it’s not far enough along to have a website).
• There’s a national conference. The Space Frontier Foundation plans to convene its annual NewSpace Conference, held in Silicon Valley the past nine years, in Seattle in 2016. Seattle will alternate as conference host after that.
• There’s even interest in the region from companies outside it who believe that if you want to be in the space business, Seattle is a place you need to be. Such was the case with Elon Musk-backed SpaceX, which announced in early 2015 plans for a Redmond engineering office that could employ hundreds.
• Most of all, there are the companies themselves. Pietsch has compiled a list of more than 30 firms that are in the space business or are significant suppliers to it. These aren’t just companies with pie-in-the-solar-system dreams of going to space. Witness Spaceflight Industries’ existing track record.

That latter segment is an important component of the space-business-cluster story; not only are these companies creating jobs, but they’re also generating work for many of the region’s advanced-manufacturing firms, some of which are already doing work for space missions. Janicki Industries in Sedro-Woolley has built production tooling and parts for NASA missions. Electroimpact in Mukilteo built a carbon-fiber tape-laying robot for a NASA center in Alabama. Tukwila-based AeroGo makes air casters for moving big, heavy objects, like satellites and rockets.

Cobalt Enterprises, a Lake Stevens machine shop that specializes in aerospace projects, has been moving into the “space” portion of aerospace, building satellite components. “It’s very different from aerospace in the sense it has to go into outer space, but it’s very similar in that it has to be certified, with very tight tolerances and exotic materials,” says co-owner and VP Paul Clark.

In short, there’s a lot going on in space business. But why is it going on now, and why here? 

Some answers:

1. The business of space, and who is playing in it, has fundamentally changed from the days when it was mostly NASA’s show. Between the end of the shuttle program and enduring debates about the cost and value of NASA’s endeavors, the national space program has felt adrift, as though it has “lost its trajectory,” in the phrasing of Anthony Waas, chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The private sector has long had a role in the space program, but with NASA’s uncertain mission and future, it is now taking the lead.

2. What has also opened the door is the dramatic evolution of space technology in its cost, capability and size. It’s no longer necessary to be a huge defense contractor funded by the federal government to be a player. “Technology has reduced the barriers to entry to getting into the space business,” Lewicki says. “I can go to Spaceflight Industries and procure for a list price a ride for a standardized satellite. Not only can I buy from them, but I can shop around many of their competitors in the United States and around the world for getting a satellite into space. I don’t have to figure that out myself.”

The man who is the president and CEO of Spaceflight Industries, Jason Andrews, says the evolution of computers from room-size mainframes to desktop personal computers provides the model for what will happen with space. “It put the power in the person’s hands,” he explains, “and then it opened up all these new businesses and applications.” 
3. If the first wave of the space business was about getting to space (and back), this phase is about what you can do once you’re there. “You don’t have to be operating at the absolute bleeding-edge, state-of-the-art, billion-dollar scientific achievement to be able to do something that’s economically useful,” Lewicki says. “Our ability to detect water on asteroids and characterize that resource and develop it in a lot of ways can be accomplished with technology that has existed for decades. The difference today is technology is much more commoditized and affordable and easier to deploy in space. I don’t need a team of a thousand engineers anymore to do it. I can do it with a team of 45 engineers from Redmond. It allows more people to try things in space.”

One of the things to be tried is getting a better sense of what’s going on back on Earth. Spaceflight Industries is already in multiple phases of the industry, but it has spawned a separate company, BlackSky Global, to provide high-resolution, near-real-time (several times an hour) imaging to customers. While the internet and social media have created an unceasing news cycle about one’s circle of acquaintances, Andrew says, “Our ability to understand the planet in the same time cycle flat out doesn’t exist.” 

4. As for why Seattle, several factors are at play. It might not have been one of the best-known centers for space endeavor, but it wasn’t a bystander, either (see story below). Between long-established companies like Boeing and what is now Aerojet Rocketdyne, there’s a knowledge base here that has led to second- and third-generation companies. Andrews, for example, is a veteran of Kistler Aerospace.

What space companies are also looking for is talent in other tech fields: software, big data, telecommunications. Tapping that talent base was a major motivation for Elon Musk to set up a SpaceX operation here. Richard Gayle, cofounder of the Space Trade Association, a now-inactive first attempt at setting up a trade group, believes there’s an even wider and deeper pool from which to draw.

“We need to find ways to shift people who maybe are working for Amazon to start thinking about getting training to work in the space industry,” Gayle says.

The region also has an abundance of, as Pietsch describes it, “high-net-worth individuals who dreamt of going to space when they were kids and now have the wherewithal to spend lots of money.” And they’re doing so, from Paul Allen to Jeff Bezos to Microsoft executive-turned-space tourist Charles Simonyi. 

High-tech talent and money aren’t small considerations, Andrews says. Texas and Florida may have a bigger legacy in space, but they don’t have the software base. Houston may have investment capital, but not the individuals with the willingness to invest it in space.

And the Northwest has institutions —f rom state universities to the Museum of Flight — that can do research, encourage collaboration and raise the profile of and interest in a regional space-business hub.

Seattle isn’t alone in seeing its future as a regional space-business base. William Hosack, the chief executive of Orbital Micro Systems, gave a talk in November to a breakfast meeting organized by the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA) on “Manufacturing Resource Needs of the Space Industry.” His company is based in one of the hubs that could emerge as a competitor to Seattle — Denver/Boulder. Also in the mix are Florida, Houston, Silicon Valley and Southern California, and others could emerge.

There are other obstacles to Seattle’s lofty goals of preeminence in the space business. It is not, and is not likely to be, a launch site. Hosack says the region may not have the sorts of manufacturing facilities or capabilities that space businesses want or need. And it’s not the home of a major NASA research center or facility.

Advocates for the Seattle space cluster say those shortcomings aren’t likely to prove fatal, or even particularly troublesome, to its ambitions. “In some ways, I think it’s great that Seattle’s space activity is somewhat independent of a mother ship of NASA,” says Lewicki, who himself worked for 10 years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena before joining Planetary Resources. “In fact, that’s what helps make it more self-sustaining and more viable. Any company that grows on its own and grows on commercial motivation is going to be at a larger scale more successful, probably more innovative and possibly more risk taking than it would be if it were primarily a service of the government.”

PNAA Executive Director Robert Uptagrafft says the region’s manufacturing base is up to the demands of the space sector precisely because of decades working with aviation. “The volumes are so low and the technical demand is very high,” he says. “The dimensional requirements are very strict. You’re talking about grams, not ounces or pounds.”

“There isn’t going to be one place that does everything,” Gayle adds. “The launches are going to happen in places that are important for launching.” But the actual development of an economy in space and the tools you need to actually make money in space, he asserts, don’t have to be next to the launch pad. Spaceflight Industries, for example, handles the assembly and prep work for satellites locally. They’re small enough to be put into crates and loaded on a truck for the drive to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for launch.

Most in the space business say the region needs three things to succeed.

One is collaboration, something they claim the region is already good at because of the tech industry’s presence.

Another is a strong participation from higher education. “In the absence of a NASA center, we need to step up our game,” Pietsch says. “I’m going to be encouraging our institutions to partner with these companies.”

That’s also the plan for the UW’s Waas, who plans to beef up his school’s curriculum and faculty on the astronautics side. He already has recruited an expert in CubeSat technology from the University of Texas. “We’re building our space repertory,” he explains, “[and] encouraging companies to come to us.”

Perhaps the biggest contribution to the region’s success will be a lot of success stories. For all the technological advances, space is still an expensive and risky proposition, as Planetary Resources found in 2014 when a rocket carrying one of its payloads blew up shortly after launch. “We will live to fly another day,” the company said on its blog at the time.

Andrews adds that such positive attitudes, which prevail in the region, represent one more reason why it has a shot at succeeding in space. “All the ingredients are here, but most importantly, it’s the mindset about taking risk,” he says.

“If space-oriented businesses continue to thrive in this region, the cumulative effect will create an ecosystem of space-related industries,” says Nathan Kundtz, president of Kymeta Corporation, which is developing flat antennas that can be steered electronically to track signals from satellites.

“Hubs tend to form because of the right industries in the right culture,” Gayle says. “They tend to not form because you don’t have those two things. We need to make sure that what we’ve got, we use. I’m a firm believer it’s going to happen. The question is how long it’s going to take to catalyze the formation of a hub and get us into space faster.”

Lewicki is betting on sooner. “In five years, Planetary Resources will have successfully launched a few more satellites, and probably unsuccessfully launched some as well,” he predicts. “We’ll learn from every success or setback.”

So will the region. If anything, people tend to underpredict what’s possible over the long term, Lewicki says. “In five to 10 years, be surprised and delighted with what we’ve developed in the space business.”

Gayle agrees. “We’ve got all these pieces, the educational side along with the actual engineering side, to do some amazing stuff,” he points out. “If we can get everybody together working collaboratively, nobody’s going to be able to catch up to us.” 

Seattle's emerging space cluster isn't composed of a handful of big, established comanies doin work for NASA. That was the structure of the original Space Age. Now the race to space is being run by lots of smaller, relatively young companies, each with its own entrepreneurial objectives. Here are some of the notweorth players.

Spaceflight Industries
The former Andrews Space has journeyed a long way from its origins as a satellite assembly, integrator and testing company. Today, Spaceflight will find a rocket launch to send your payload to orbit and manage the mission, it operates a global ground-station network to handle space communications and it continues to build components for satellites. The company has even bought a rocket from SpaceX for a “dedicated rideshare” of getting clients’ payloads into orbit. It’s moving on the ground, too, shifting its headquarters from Tukwila to South Lake Union.

Blue Origin
Back in the early days of space movies, rockets and capsules alike would make soft landings at their destinations or upon returning to Earth. That’s the broad goal of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is developing reusable rockets to replace the standard use-once model (like the Saturn V Apollo 11 booster that a Bezos-sponsored team recently found in the Atlantic Ocean). Blue Origin is also building a six-passenger reusable capsule. Blue Origin’s headquarters have been in Kent, but it has tested its rocket designs in West Texas, and in 2015 announced a production facility in Florida, near the planned launch site of its rockets at Cape Canaveral.

Tethers Unlimited
Getting to space and doing something once you’re there isn’t just about launch vehicles and satellites. Tethers Unlimited, a Bothell company formed in 1994, is developing accessories and tools to make space work more productive and less expensive. One such product is a high-dexterity robotic arm for deployment on small satellites for assembly, satellite servicing and debris capture. It also makes solar-power arrays, thrusters and communications gear. The company has even developed a specialized “terminator tape” to be used at the end of the satellite’s mission and hasten its “deorbiting.”

Vulcan Aerospace
Paul Allen’s first big space-related venture — SpaceShipOne, the first privately built craft to enter suborbital space — is now a museum piece (literally), but Allen has moved on to more projects. Stratolaunch Systems is developing technology it says will be less expensive and more flexible in sending payloads to low orbit, using an aircraft as a launch platform. Now under construction in Mojave, California, Stratolaunch could be ready to go in 2016. Vulcan Capital, meanwhile, is looking for space-venture investments. Last year, it participated in a $20 million fundraising round for Spaceflight Industries.

Elon Musk’s space company can’t be called a venture any more, not with a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to send resupply missions to the International Space Station. Next on the development agenda is a next-generation vehicle to carry people as well as cargo. SpaceX is headquartered in Southern California but it made a big splash in this region with the establishment of an office in Redmond and prospects of as many as 1,000 employees for satellite development, aiming at an “internet network in space” using thousands of satellites in low orbit. Lately, though, the company has been cooling its jets as to how aggressively it will pursue development of the technology. 

Planetary Resources
Why go to distant planets to find exotic materials when they’re close at hand on near-Earth asteroids? That’s the thinking behind Planetary Resources’ objective of scoping out asteroids and developing the technology to mine them. “A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains more platinum than has been mined in the history of humanity,” the company says. Water and rare metals found on asteroids could also be used to build in space and fuel missions, eliminating the expensive hauling of materials from the Earth. The Redmond company has already deployed a demonstrator and test craft from the International Space Station.

Aerojet Rocketdyne
It’s gone through multiple ownership and name changes over the years, but the company currently known as Aerojet Rocketdyne is one of the pioneers of the local space cluster; it was founded in 1960. The Redmond outpost of the Sacramento-based company specializes in small liquid engine manufacturing, liquid propulsion system development, including fuels and fuel tanks, propellant lines and control valves. Its hardware shows up on all sorts of launches; a recent “national security payload” mission for the U.S. government included a dozen of the company’s upper-stage hydrazine thrusters.

Those who grew up in the Space Age remember the geography of that era. Cape Canaveral (or Kennedy, depending on the time frame) for launches, Houston for Mission Control, California for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, much later, shuttle landings.

The Seattle area didn’t figure prominently on that map, but it did have a hand in multiple space projects, mainly through Boeing. The then-Seattle-based company built the first stage of the Saturn V rocket used to launch Apollo missions, although actual assembly occurred in Louisiana. Lunar roving vehicles, an example of which is on display at the Museum of Flight, were built at the Boeing Space Center in Kent; three of them are still parked on the moon. Lunar orbiters, which photographically scouted the moon’s surface for landing sites, were built at the Boeing Missile Production Center in Seattle and tested at the space environment test chamber in Kent.

Much of that activity was centered at the Boeing Space Center in Kent, opened in 1964. In recent years, though, Boeing has been selling off parcels of the site as well as moving projects and employees to other locations picked up through acquisitions.
Bob Citron was one of the region’s pioneers in space businesses. In 1983, he founded Spacehab Inc., initially based in Bellevue, to design and build modules that fit in the space shuttle’s payload bay.

Citron went on to become cofounder of another of the region’s pioneering space companies, Kistler Aerospace, originally based in Kirkland, with Walter Kistler. The plan was to develop fully reusable rocketships. That project never made it to completion, but alumni from the company helped spark the current wave of the regional space cluster.

Communication to, from and via space is a big sector in space business today. That was also the vision behind Teledesic, a venture backed by Craig McCaw, Bill Gates and Boeing to launch hundreds of low-Earth-orbit satellites to create a high-speed digital telecommunications network. It managed to send one demonstration satellite to space before suspending its efforts. 

Welcome to the Drone Economy

Welcome to the Drone Economy

A new industrial sector is arriving — and nobody’s at the wheel.
Jim Tracy runs a company that maintains and repairs wireless communications towers, many of them in some of the most rugged and remote country across eight Western states.  Just getting to the towers sometimes requires off-road vehicles and snowcats, says Tracy, the CEO of Legacy Towers in the Kitsap County community of Burley. Then there’s the climb up the towers, which can range in height from 100 feet to 1,700 feet. Aside from the risk posed by the height, there are other hazards presented by things like the weather or nesting wasps. And if inspection of the relay antennas at the top reveals the need for a part or a tool the technician didn’t bring up on the first trip, there’s another climb down and back up to be made. If only there were a way to inspect towers for hazards and to diagnose the problem from the ground, reducing risks and time spent on the job.  But there is, one already known to amateurs and hobbyists and one increasingly being used in scores of businesses — the drone, or, more properly, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
Legacy Towers got its first UAV in late 2013 and has found them useful in making climbers safer and their tasks more efficient. “If you can throw a drone in there,” Tracy explains, “you can cover more ground with less fuel use.” A camera-equipped drone can be dispatched to the top of a tower to read the bar code on an antenna, look for damage or check to see if it has been knocked out of alignment.
“The first one you get, it’s kind of cool,” Tracy acknowledges. “[But] at the end of the day, it’s just another tool.”
The power and potential in that tool are such that people are finding applications faster than technology developers or regulators can keep up. They’re also finding more places to deploy these devices.  Most of the attention has gone to things that fly — think Amazon’s experiments with drone deliveries — or operate on the highway, with Google, Tesla and every major auto manufacturer pursuing hands-free operation of cars. But driverless/pilotless/autonomous vehicles are also finding their way to, and doing work now, on rail networks, on farms and on the seas.
In the process, the people who write the software; make the antennas, sensors and other pieces that make the technology possible; build the trucks, cars, planes and boats that employ it, and apply it to problem solving in virtually every industry, as well as to those who collect and analyze data from drones, are building what might be called, for lack of a better term, the Drone Economy.
This drone economy isn’t a “maybe someday” promise of a flourishing economic sector. It’s already here. Much like the developing local space-business cluster (Seattle Business, January 2016), Washington is becoming one of the nation’s centers of research, development and commercialization of drone tech, with dozens of companies actively involved in it.
Creation of a new job-generating tech sector won’t be the only way the Drone Economy’s influence will be felt, either in this region or globally. Entire industries, and not just those dealing directly in transportation, stand to be reshaped by the products and services they already are bringing to market.
The activity and potential of the Drone Economy has caught the eye of state government, which in October convened the first meeting of the Unmanned Systems Industry Council. John Thornquist, who heads the state’s Office of Aerospace, says the council’s purpose is to get people in the industry talking to one another and to officials at all levels of government, to hash out issues that may limit the sector’s potential and “to help that ecosystem thrive.”
The idea of cars, boats, trains and planes that pilot themselves has been the stuff of science fiction and futuristic museum displays for decades. Some pieces of the technology have been around for years as well, as any kid with a remote-control car, boat or plane can attest. Real-world, full-size applications aren’t rare, either. Sea-Tac Airport’s subway system between terminals operates without on-board drivers. So does the SkyTrain system in Vancouver, British Columbia. Remote-controlled locomotives have long been used in switching yards.
But those applications are in closed spaces or networks, and the rail industry has had much less success applying the technology to long-distance freight networks. The Drone Economy is being built on the idea of getting autonomous vehicles, aircraft and vessels onto roads, into the skies and on the water.
A convergence of factors allows this transition to happen. Paul Kostek, a past president of the IEEE Aerospace and Electronics Systems Society and a Seattle-based contractor and consultant to tech companies, says the technologies that make autonomous vehicles and aircraft possible started out as solutions to other problems. In aviation, for example, where “weight and space are always critical,” the continuous drive for lighter and stronger materials made drones possible by dramatically shrinking the size, weight and power requirements. In automobiles, technologies developed to make driving safer, such as parking assistance and collision warning and avoidance systems, can easily be extended to help remove a human driver from the process.
Jim Tracy of Legacy Towers sees drones as another handy item in the toolbox.
Drone development has also borrowed from technology developed for use in fields outside transportation. WiBotic, a University of Washington-based business developing wireless recharging systems for aerial, marine and land drones, started with a charging platform for implantable medical devices like artificial heart pumps. “Drones need a way to scale in a way that power is not going to be a limiting factor,” says Ben Waters, WiBotic’s cofounder and CEO.
Technology has improved not just the vehicles themselves but also the images onboard cameras produce (thanks to stabilization) and the flight controls for operating UAVs. Adoption of the technology in the commercial sector has been accelerated, Thornquist says, by the low cost to buy and try one, and the often quick return on investment.
Kostek cites one other important factor propelling the Drone Economy: “Very rich people are interested in this.” With people like Tesla’s Elon Musk and companies like Google putting money into drone development, Kostek says the sector, much like commercial space, is being driven by “outsiders with capital to spend.”
Consumers also deserve credit for taking what were dismissed as toys and demonstrating their commercial potential, particularly for aerial photography, Waters notes. “They provided a unique perspective on how to do things.”
The result: An explosion of R&D and commercialization, much of it driven by a passel of regional companies and institutions:
■ Boeing-subsidiary Insitu, based in the Columbia Gorge town of Bingen, has been regularly winning multimillion-dollar contracts from the military for its surveillance drones. The company has expanded its commercial products and services, set up a business unit specifically for that purpose and participated in a project with BNSF Railway to use drones to inspect rights of way in remote areas.
Aerovel, based in White Salmon and founded by Insitu alumni, has been developing drones small enough to be launched from a fishing vessel, to look for schools of fish. An Aerovel Flexrotor was used to provide aerial scouting of routes through the ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for a workboat fleet retrieving mooring anchors.
■ Thanks to Insitu, the Columbia Gorge has developed a mini-cluster of drone-related companies like White Salmon-based 
Sagetech Corporation, which makes small transponders to identify and control military and civilian drones.
■ Bellevue-based Paccar was playing with remote-control technology at its Mount Vernon research center as far back as the 1990s. More recently, it showed at an annual meeting a video of a demonstration of maneuvering and parking a truck at a Walmart distribution facility. Its European subsidiary DAF was one of a half-dozen truck manufacturers participating in an on-highway test of platooning — a tightly spaced convoy of trucks in which the trailing vehicles are driverless.
■ Few industries have leapt into drone technology with the enthusiasm of agriculture. Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems in Prosser has multiple research projects underway, including using an eight-rotor octo-copter to monitor irrigation in vineyards.
■ If you’re going to have a drone industry, you might want to have people trained in their operation and maintenance. Green River Community College offers an associate’s degree in unmanned aerial systems and a certificate for UAV operators; Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake has launched programs in mechatronics, sensor analysis and flight operations.
■ The University of Washington’s College of Engineering, meanwhile, has its Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory to “support advances in guidance, navigation and control technology” for UAVs, and to integrate the technology into flight mechanics and controls courses in the university’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
■ Tech-sector senior statesman Tom Alberg, cofounder and managing director of Madrona Venture Group, co-authored a widely discussed think piece proposing the devotion of part of Interstate 5 between Seattle and Portland to autonomous vehicles. “We cannot predict the specific adoption rate for autonomous vehicles, but we believe that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is inevitable and will be here sooner than most observers expect,” the essay says.
■ Alberg adds Madrona has been backing its belief in the coming of the drone/autonomous age with a significant investment in Bellevue-based Echodyne Corporation, which is developing small, lightweight radars that could be used in UAVs and autonomous vehicles.
Clockwise from left: Aerovel's Flexrotor is designed to operate over oceans and remote areas; WSU Professor Lav Khot
prepares to fly an octo-copter over a vineyard; an Autel Robotics drone equipped with WiBotic wireless power solutions.
A drone economy could well reshape businesses directly involved in the production or use of UAVs. Commercial real estate services firm CBRE recently issued a report on the impact of technologies including autonomous vehicles on its industry. Driverless trucks, for example, will increase the distance and hours those vehicles can operate, reducing costs. Supply chains will be able to operate with fewer but larger distribution centers, but those warehouses will have to be built to receive and deploy the new generation of autonomous delivery trucks.
The speed with which technologies are being readied for market is also one of the barriers to their adoption, as lawmakers and regulators scramble to keep up and deal with thorny practical issues like safety, liability and traffic management on the ground and in the air (e.g., how do vehicles and aircraft operate in the same space at the same time?), not to mention broader societal issues such as privacy and job gains and losses.
“The technology is going to be ready before the world is ready,” says Paccar President and CEO Ron Armstrong.
Mike Dozier, general manager of Kenworth, a Paccar subsidiary, says many of the technologies that make autonomous trucks possible have been showing up on trucks for years — lane-departure warning systems, drowsy-driver monitoring, even adaptive cruise controls that use GPS data to tell the engine to apply more power when the vehicle is approaching an uphill grade.
The truck is packed with data-generating sensors and equipment, for which costs have been steadily declining, adds Paccar SVP Kyle Quinn. The issue, Quinn points out, has been “how do you manage all the information coming off the sensors and interpret it?” 
Answer: creating breakthroughs in image processing and artificial intelligence. In other words, software is starting to catch up with the capabilities of hardware.
It may be some time before drivers are banished from the truck cab, the Paccar brass cautions. Drivers have duties beyond steering, accelerating and braking, such as securing the load and making sure it stays in place. They’re also needed to handle unexpected situations that autonomous systems aren’t sure how to manage.
Still, none of those barriers seem as daunting as what the commercial space business faces, and it’s been able to grow in spite of the challenges. Further, if regulators aren’t moving as fast as many advocates of drones and driver-free vehicles would like, they also aren’t saying, “No way.” 
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its Part 107 compendium of rules in mid-2016 to govern use of commercial drones according to weight, speed, height, operator certification and other criteria. While it’s a long list, it does give those interested in the technology’s use some certainty. The FAA has also authorized research projects on flying UAVs beyond the operator’s line of sight, such as the Insitu-BNSF experiment.
The industry itself can do a lot to allay some of the safety fears of regulators and the public, Waters says, by “moving reliability from pretty high with top-of-the-line consumer devices” to commercial units with virtually no potential points of failure, and which have safety devices in place in cases of power loss or collision.
The technology also has the potential to mitigate problems it creates and solve others. Driverless trucks, for example, threaten the jobs of drivers. But the trucking industry has long been dealing with a chronic shortage of drivers; the American Trucking Associations reported the turnover rate at large fleets was 83 percent in the second quarter of 2016. And even as they eliminate jobs in some sectors, drones and other autonomous vehicles could create more in others. The FAA news release on approval of Part 107 says the new rules could help generate more than 100,000 new jobs in the next 10 years. 
Regulators and legislators will be under pressure to keep up with the explosion of applications. Forest fires can be monitored closely but safely. Insurance companies can inspect storm damage on homes — and transmit images to the home office — without sending an inspector onto a potentially precarious roof. Kostek, a resident of Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, came up with the idea of using drones to monitor the lake’s health. Farmers are already working with autonomous trackers guided by GPS. Underwater drones can inspect boat hulls. A local police department has used aerial drones to document auto accident scenes, allowing officers to reopen roads sooner.
Waters expects the boom to be even bigger in a few years, when companies now seeking  funding bring their products to market.
Kostek agrees. “We’re still early, early on as to how these technologies will be applied,” he predicts. “Somewhere, there’s a smart kid playing around with an idea none of us has thought of.”