On the Virginia Tech campus, Project Wing is famous for bringing drone delivery to Blacksburg. This fall, Project Wing Co-lead James Ryan Burgess is slated to deliver the keynote address Oct. 16 at a symposium that will bring together experts from industry, government, and academia to chart a path toward public confidence in unmanned systems.

The symposium, entitled “Cultivating Trust in Autonomous Systems,” is hosted by the Ridge and Valley Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI.

AUVSI is the world’s largest unmanned-systems advocacy group; the Ridge and Valley Chapter, founded in 2016, gives the organization a local presence in a region where unmanned-systems research, testing, and economic activity are booming.

Burgess was one of the founding team members of Project Wing, which was started at X (formerly Google X) in 2012, and is the inventor on a number of the group’s patents. X aims to incubate new breakthroughs in science or technology that could solve huge problems affecting the world.

Project Wing is developing a drone delivery system to revolutionize the speed, cost, and environmental impact of transporting goods, and an unmanned-traffic management platform (UTM) to safely route drones through our skies.

In September 2016, Wing made their first autonomous flights and deliveries to people in the U.S., delivering burritos to staff and students at Virginia Tech. The groundbreaking operation was a collaboration between Wing and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which operates one of seven Federal Aviation Administration-designated test sites for unmanned aircraft.

The unmanned systems industry is expanding rapidly, accompanied by intense commercial and consumer interest and projections of billions of dollars in economic value. But the embrace of this relatively young technology also introduces a complex set of questions about how to certify, test, and regulate unmanned and autonomous vehicles, which leaders across the industry are working to answer.

“What is it going to take for us, both as industry professionals and as members of the public, to trust autonomy — that’s the big question,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

“New technology brings tremendous benefits, but it also introduces new risks, and people need to be confident that those risks are being adequately addressed," Blanks said. "That’s why we’re working with the industry and communities right now to develop the design standards, regulations, and risk mitigations that will help us earn the public acceptance necessary to realize the potential of unmanned systems.”

Delivery operations like Wing’s are likely to be one of the public’s most direct interactions with unmanned aircraft systems, and are a proving ground for navigating the balance between resistance to unfamiliar technology and enthusiasm for what that technology can offer.

“The value proposition becomes real when you can get a package delivered to you in 20 or 30 minutes instead of two or three days,” Blanks said.

The two-day symposium will also feature demonstrations of air- and ground-based vehicles and plenary talks and panel discussions by experts from several organizations, including General Motors, Aeroprobe, the Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA, as well Virginia Tech faculty conducting innovative unmanned-systems research.

The symposium, which runs Oct. 15 - 17, is sponsored in part by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, the College of Engineering, the Office of Economic Development, the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

More information about the symposium and registration details are available on the symposium web page

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