Drone conferences are popping up everywhere these days—not a week goes by in which I don’t see an announcement for a new drone / UAS / UAV expo or conference.

By any measure, their promotional efforts are quite effective – perhaps not factual, but still effective. With claims of “the largest gathering ever” and “the defining event,” one can only be deft not to attend or exhibit. Any why not? Drones and drone technology are exciting.

Given that we are still in the ‘inflated expectation phase’ of the hype cycle for drones, it’s anybody’s guess which producers will shake out or when we will reach the slope of enlightenment. So, for both attendee and vendor / exhibitor, it seems you must attend them all or get left in the dust. But if you’re like me, you don’t have unlimited time or resources to attend all, so you’ve got to guess which ones to attend. In this post, I’ll give you five criteria to apply so your guesses give you a conference experience that adds value rather than just hype.

  1. Organizer – Who is behind the curtain?

It’s critical to know who is running the show. Some expo organizations are founded by industry leaders who have a long history of experience and lots of connections. The best example is the sUSB Expo. Others are new comers wanting to jump into the pool because they see a ready market for their existing conference production machine or they think drones are ‘cool’.

The better drone expos have an existing media presence and a diverse board of advisors. Do your homework and vet this. One easy way is to look at the organizer’s social media presence. (For the importance of that see Drone Businesses: Three Social Media Platforms You Can’t Afford To Ignore.)

  1. Topics – What’s the focus?

You can’t tell by the expo’s name. I recently attended a conference that billed itself as a “…gathering of the global commercial drone community…with exhibitors from around the globe”. Turns out ‘commercial drone community’ meant ‘retailers’. It was very consumer-oriented and full of fad and fashion. That fine, if that’s your focus. However, if your intent is to hook into the activity and vendors and buyers in the commercial drone markets, you are best to look deeper. For a list and explanation of markets, see the links on the bottom of this page.

  1. Audience – Right target?

Ask yourself who the conference is targeting. Is it targeting the buyers of commercial drone technology or the sellers? Is it targeting a specific industry or trying to reach them all. The answer may not be clear from the marketing material, but some are more recognizable than others. For example, some expos target a DIY and maker audience. Others target specific commercial buyers like GIS or agriculture.

You also need to consider whether the drone expo is targeting a defense and aerospace audience. These expos have proximity and connections to those vendors, so that’s influencing the audience makeup. It’s worth your while to know this. The defense and aerospace audience is unique as I have noted here and here, so the topics of the conference may or may not be of interest to you.

Keep in mind this is a new industry, and conferences and expos can be the main place where vendors make new connections. Those connections are quite often between the vendors themselves and only sometimes between vendors and customers. So don’t be disappointed if you don’t get all of your customer questions answered. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the U.S. still does not have regulations in place, so what vendors will offer as a commercial product or service in the U.S. is yet to be determined.

  1. Speakers – Are they true experts?

Every speaker gets billed in their bio as a drone expert. Many are not, so vet them with a Google search or review of their LinkedIn profile. By and large you should be able to tell whether they are an existing industry expert or a just a wannabe.

Look for a variety of speakers, too. All too often I hear the same topic covered by different speakers at the same expo – for example. regulations or how to buy a drone. While this may be a result of poor conference planning, some of it has to do with the lack of diversity in the speaker pool.

  1. Exhibitors – Who’s there?

Take a look at the list of exhibitors. Are they mostly established vendors that sell commercial products globally or are they mostly start-ups with unproven products? You can find out by looking at their website. There’s nothing wrong with either. A good expo will have a mix of both. Expos are a great way to learn about new products and innovations, but a good conference will have vendor training and breakout sessions. Look to see if it provides the opportunity to try out new technology and see live demos.

There you have it. A quick list of criteria to help you navigate the latest drone fad.

What about the future? Will there be a shakeout of conferences? Will there ever be an uber conference for drones like the computer and aviation industry have in CeBIT and the Paris Airshow? We’ll see.

Tell me about your experience attending or exhibiting at a drone conference—good, bad, or otherwise. Email me at [email protected]

By Colin Snow

Colin Snow is CEO and Founder of Skylogic Research, LLC (also known as Drone Analyst®), a research, content, and advisory services firm for the commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry. Colin is a 25 year technology industry veteran with a background in market research, enterprise software, electronics, digital imaging, and mobility. His experience includes aerial photography as well as making, programming, and piloting remote control aircraft. Colin holds an MBA from Florida Atlantic University and is a member of all major UAS industry groups including: AUVSI, RCAPA, and AMA.