Unmanned systems, such as driverless cars and drones, become more visible every day. But does the public trust the technology? That question and others will challenge leaders in the field of autonomous systems as they gather in Blacksburg for a conference Oct. 15 to 17.

Craig Woolsey, professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and a conference organizer, said, “Now that these technologies are making their way into commercial products, some practical questions that researchers have had the luxury to ignore have suddenly become quite urgent.”

The region is a hub for unmanned systems research, with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership – an FAA-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems – situated here. Blacksburg is also home to Torc Robotics, founded by Virginia Tech alumni, which recently completed a cross-country test of its self-driving system for consumer cars.

Nanci Hardwick of Aeroprobe Corporation, based in Christiansburg, Virginia, also a conference organizer, said the meeting will draw representatives from industry, government, and research. The conference will “draw attention to the opportunity and density of business activity here,” she said.

Many in the academic community have worked with autonomous systems or the component technologies for decades, said John Provo, director of Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs. “This is the place to be if you’re interested in autonomous systems.”

The conference is hosted by the Ridge and Valley chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The association’s board of directors includes Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is working in the public and private sectors to research automated-vehicle technology, including a recent partnership with Ford to study ways driverless cars can communicate with drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Conference sponsors include:

  • College of Engineering
  • Office of Economic Development
  • Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science
  • Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
  • Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership

Speakers include Scott Miller, director of autonomous vehicle integration at GM; James Ryan Burgess, co-lead of Project Wing; Andrew Lacher of MITRE; and Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center.

Registration for the conference, titled “Cultivating Trust in Autonomous Systems: Do we know all we need to know?” is open at the Continuing and Professional Education registration site.

Devon Johnson contributed to this report.

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