Questions about when and how drones technology will be to adequately scale are about regulation as much as they are about technology. The commercial opportunities that will be opened when drones can be integrated into the airspace in a safe manner at scale are endless, and it’s part of the reason Major General Marke “Hoot” Gibson was so focused on how doing so would work from a regulatory perspective in his role as Senior Advisor, UAS Integration at the FAA. It’s a topic he’ll be dealing with from a different perspective in his new role as CEO of the NUAIR Alliance.
On episode #62 of the Commercial Drones FM podcast – FAA UAS Integration with Major General Hoot Gibson – host Ian Smith sat down with General Gibson to discuss this topic and plenty more. How the FAA has moved from a paper system to a digital one, what role security considerations need to play for operators and the logistics of a UTM system are just a few of the topics the two discussed.
We caught up with Ian to further explore a few of the things he mentioned in the podcast, including his comment about LAANC potentially being more important than Part 107, and the role of automation as it directly relates to the ability of UAV technology to scale. Read through the additional insights before or after listening to the podcast below. You can also listen to the episode on iTunes or GooglePlay.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Hoot talked about what it means to change a culture in the context of the FAA, but a similar kind of cultural shift is one that needs to take place at certain organizations before drone technology can be properly adopted, don’t you think? Are there any lessons company stakeholders can take from the approach/success that Hoot has had in terms of enabling this kind of change within their own organization?
Ian Smith: Hoot seems to have done a great job throughout his career in helping organizations think about the big picture. As private companies continue to develop their own drone strategies, it’s important to keep compliance and safety at the forefront, but also realize that we’re just at the beginning here. The technology—and proliferation of it—will likely grow to some unprecedented levels that many of us are not aware of right now. This is similar to lessons that Hoot has taught in his career. Do not forget that these aircraft are operating in the NAS (National Airspace System) and that drones are aviation. Departments who adopt drones have to understand that they must adopt a safety culture, rooted in aviation, to succeed.
Do you agree that drones are only going to be able to scale once more tasks/missions are able to be automated? Should we be more focused on this issue from a technical or regulatory perspective?
So really, the best way to scale drones is to take humans out of the loop. There are countless use cases where a computer flying itself is safer, more efficient, and consistent, compared to a human. Humans are also much better at other things that computers are not. If computers can fly the dull and dangerous jobs, we can focus on much more important things and not need to be present at every single drone operation. That’s costly and unable to scale.
BVLOS regulations are the key piece to the puzzle for scaling drones beyond the purview of constant human supervision. As an industry, we should be (and are) incredibly focused on this. The technology is already there.
You hinted at LAANC potentially having a bigger impact on the industry than Part 107. Why do you think that is the case?
LAANC is one of the first examples of a pretty automated system that will allow the industry to scale. Right now, a human submits the LAANC request. They go in, verify that their mission parameters meet the requirements, submit, and can get approval. Now imagine a computer submitting the request. Sure, the request will likely be denied in certain unsafe instances, but this system is a precursor to a potential “connected” UTM network which, combined with BVLOS regulations, can enable massive scaling of drone operations and presents higher market potential and productivity gains for commercial operations.
Your point about a future where drones, manned aircraft, HALE, etc., are all part of a single system feels like one that numerous individuals and organizations are looking to enable. What are some of the biggest hurdles you see the industry working through in 2018 in order to get there?
It’s going to be interesting watching some big new players in drones pushing the limits of what is illegal today and driving that forward to legality. Intel is getting regularly approved to operate swarms of hundreds of drones at night, in urban metro areas (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, etc). Their drone light shows are sometimes glossed over as a silly gimmick, but the real showcase there is the potential for the technology and proving that (with enough resources) you can get FAA approval for these types of drone operations, which are currently not allowed at scale. Another company to watch is Verizon, with their acquisition of Skyward. We’re going to see more connected drones in 2018, another big hurdle, but a big step towards industry-wide BVLOS regulations.
Hoot’s point about security always being an issue is something that really should be more of a consideration, because what it means to securely capture, process, store and share data gathered by a drone is always going to depend on the project, but also on how technology changes and gets updated. With so many different factors to consider, what’s the most effective way we can talk and think about this issue as an industry?
The initial responsibility of security rests on the shoulders of the ecosystem of OEMs, the software companies, and the regulators—they make the industry possible. There’s a reason why we see the FAA making drone flights illegal in national parks, around some national monuments, over some cities, and even around military bases. Those pose security risks and it’s the FAA’s job to mitigate those. Private/public partnerships are starting to show the fruits of their labor and the FAA does have a history of making these happen. In those cases, both parties are responsible for effectively facilitating dialogue about security, which just so happens to be one of the most pressing issues in these talks to-date. We’ll see increasing discussion around these matters, motivated by the recent DJI security concerns in the news.