The creation of a UAS traffic management (UTM) system will undoubtedly have a major impact on the safe integration of drones in the National Airspace System (NAS). As a member of the NASA UTM program, Skyward CEO and co-founder Jonathan Evans has been an instrumental part of figuring out the specifics of how that’s going to work for UAV operators, organizations and regulators.
I wanted to focus on that topic during an interview with Jonathan, but we couldn’t even get through the entire thing without being interrupted by breaking news. Part 107 has been officially released by the FAA, and it eliminates many of the expensive and challenging requirements that had been associated with operating a drone for commercial purposes. It’s literal proof of how quickly things change in this industry.
Exploring the logistics of what a UTM system will mean for the industry was something we focused on in Part 1, but this news compelled us to expand on that scope a bit. In the conclusion of our interview, we get specific about the logistics of this UTM system and how the current approach to rural, riskless airspace will impact the future, but I couldn’t resist asking Jonathan for his perspective around what Part 107 means for the industry and the development of a UTM system now that it’s official.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Part 107 has been officially announced by the FAA, which means commercial drone and public sector operators are going to have a much easier time getting into the air. What is your initial reaction to the news?
Jonathan Evans: This ruling means the commercial drone industry is getting a long awaited push and we are going to see a big increase in the number of businesses with drone programs. There is more opportunity with the release of part 107 but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to win. Those companies that plan, have processes that allow them to operate safely and professionally in multiple jurisdictions, and are setup to scale are going to be the ones that succeed.
How does Part 107 impact the future of initiatives like the UTM system we’ve been discussing?
Part 107 is really just the next iteration of the regulatory framework that UTM is working within. The regulators do the “what”… they say what the rules are. Industry has to do the “how” to meet those standards of safety set by the regulator. What we’re doing at UTM is about writing open blueprints we can all build to in the industry that answer some of the “how”.
After hearing you talk through where things are right now with the development of a UTM system, it really sounds like the technical capabilities are there, and it’s just about what’s going to make sense logistically and legally.
Yes, we have the capabilities today. Jeff Bezos talks about 86% of Amazon’s goods being under 5 lbs, and that they want to use UAVs to carry goods those last few miles to the destination. We are able to do that now—but only legally in the middle of a test range in the Nevada desert.
The work we’re doing at UTM is about providing airspace stakeholders a common technical blueprint for interoperability in regulated airspace systems. Take registration, which is required under Part 107—this is something that could span national boundaries and that is technical and regulatory in nature because it’s both about accountability — tying a responsible human operator to the aircraft, and the ability to uniquely identify and authenticate a drone on a network. An aerial robot’s registration number needs to look a little like the unique IMEI numbers on our phone’s sim card and a little like the N-numbers you see on airplanes today.
UTM is about the technical standards of interoperability these systems need in place to scale. You can register your single drone today just fine at the FAA’s website, but to manage a network of them like Bezos is envisioning, registration needs to evolve into something defined by software standards that can live in any regulatory framework. UTM is about those next systems.
For the longest time, one of the best resources for where things are and were going with UTM systems was this article from NASA, but the recent test that involved 24 drones flying simultaneously at 6 FAA test sites across the country really brought the technology to life. What did the results of this test mean to you?
I mentioned that our work at NASA UTM is to create an open blueprint, and this was an amazing example of that. It allowed everyone to see how we can use secure networks and the Internet to identify these robots and see them in space. It was another one of those “ah-hah” moments for the public, because it put the technology in context for them. People are realizing that if our phones can tell us anything at all times no matter where we are, why couldn’t that same concept work for managing networks of drones?
That gets back to your earlier point about bringing us back from the future, because such things are happening and having an impact in the present. As you mentioned, just applying the same capabilities that smartphones have right now to this technology can make a major difference.
Exactly. There is already infrastructure that’s available to us today. With that and the technology we have right now, we can start answering so many of the questions regulators are asking. We can answer: “who’s flying,” “where are they flying,” “what are they flying,” “when are they flying,” and “how are they flying it.” Those variables include many factors: whether it’s day or night, whether it’s good weather or bad, etc. Giving commercial operators who are working in this airspace the tools they need to answer those questions for regulators is something we’ve always been committed to.
I know this is contrary to the focus we’ve established, but I want to take us not only out of the present but push us even further into the future when a UTM has become a baseline of operating a drone. Do you think those operators will wonder how in the heck anyone ever flew a drone without one? You’re a pilot, so can you tell me if that’s the same sort of feeling I imagine you would have about flying today without some sort of communication with air traffic control?
Well, let me modify your assumption a bit.
Yes, it would be absurd for me to expect to fly uncoordinated through Seattle Tacoma International Airport if I were flying a patient to a hospital in downtown Seattle without talking to ATC. We’re talking about a very dense airspace that has a lot of complexity, and air traffic control is the system we rely on to get us through the fog that’s a staple of that region. It’s a complex and robust infrastructure. When I’m flying through that fog in a helicopter at the same time as a 747, the captain of that 747 and I know what’s going on thanks to that setup. So yes, it would be insane to not have that at SeaTac today, and I do reflect back on the evolution that brought us to such a trustworthy system. It’s pretty amazing to think the first airplanes were flying in and out of airports with pilots looking out their windows in order to not hit each other.
But, if you fly away from that SeaTac area, you’ll find far less dense airspace. It might even be practically empty airspace. That’s what still exists in many areas. This is the type of airspace where commercial drone operators in the U.S. have been able to fly under a section 333 exemption. And of course it’s where we’re expecting to see increased activity now that part 107 has passed. We’re talking about empty, low-risk airspace above vast rural areas. I occasionally fly in such airspace in both helicopters and airplanes, using visual line of sight to make sure I don’t hit anything. As a licensed pilot, I’m trained to fly in dense airspace via air traffic control and in empty airspace via my own line of sight, and I trust the other operators in the airspace to do the same. We’ve all been trained the same way and we’re all following the same rules of the road. We know the rights of way. We know the common traffic advisory frequency to look up if we want to talk to one another in that area.
The fundamental principle of all infrastructure in the airspace is about trust… known operators, and known context. We all look at the same map, and therefore we can literally be on the same page as another operator in the airspace. Sometimes, an air traffic controller is a third party to that conversation. But most of the time, it’s about cooperating to manage the airspace as licensed pilots communicating in various ways with each other. And this new generation of aerial robotic aviator is no different. Part 107 codifies a way for us to trust those actors.
I think the way this shakes out is that the same principles of trusting in a cooperative airspace management system and in a common operating picture becomes increasingly software-defined. This will allow for higher and higher densities of integrated aircraft flying on an optimized, on-demand, robotic network of aviation services in and around our urban areas. And there will still be huge bastions of rural and open airspace where these services simply aren’t demanded as often or in such densities. The “future UTM” you’re describing looks more like the Internet than like a set of train tracks… in other words, it’s not something we build and then the vehicles join it. It’s a self-organized and organic system built to the interoperable blueprints we’re starting to publish at NASA and elsewhere. Flying a drone without it in the future would be analogous to running a PC or smartphone completely offline.
Besides the impact to safety, what other benefits and opportunities will be opened up by the development of a UTM system?
Market optimization will be a big one. That’s the real driver. Why have a network system of aerial robotics? It’s the same reason why nobody has a PC that’s not connected to the Internet.
Think about it this way: my smartphone, a small pocket-sized computer, doesn’t actually store any of my music, photos, bank data, or other information. All of that lives in the cloud and I access it via networks. That’s a result of the market optimizing the services I want from the information network. Because of that, everything I use my phone for has become faster and more available at all times.
That’s the same way UTM is evolving. The market demands that you more efficiently inspect that bridge or that cell phone tower, or deliver that 5-lb package directly to the consumer, and there is a price that drives it. We’re in the early days now, but that price is enormous, and the value created by this technology crosscuts just about every vertical market. The reason you build a networked set of drones is because that’s how you can use this technology to address an enormous scale.
What will the creation of a UTM system mean to the FAA and the future of commercial drone regulation?
NASA does a great job of charting this course, because so much of it is about how the market, airspace and regulation are tied to together.
At NASA UTM, PK has led us to consider how these technologies should evolve, how we should approach interoperability in the airspace, and how we should communicate with air traffic control when we’re in controlled space. We establish a blueprint there at UTM that industry can build to and then the regulator, the FAA in this case, can say whether or not that meets their threshold for safety. If it doesn’t, they tell us to go back and do it again. That’s the interplay.
More and more, the FAA is proclaiming their love for NASA in this fashion. They’re pointing to NASA UTM as the place where you should find blueprints to build applications that the FAA will be interested in and be more apt to approve. There’s not a direct correlation now, but there is a soft one. Just remember, the first ”A” in “NASA” is for “aeronautics.” Their first mandate is to promote aviation safety and be that federal incubator for the next revolution of capability in aviation we’re going to see as a civilization. NASA’s always where we’ve gone to make the miracles happen, and we may not be going to the moon, but aviation itself is a bit of a marvel and only getting more sophisticated in the drone era.
Louis CK gets at some of that in a bit on Conan where he talks about the miracle of the fact we’re all moving at 600 miles an hour when we’re in the air on a plane. I agree with him, it is an amazing feat!
You can take that same awe everyone should be feeling at 30,000 feet and realize it’s becoming digital. It’s becoming the information age version of it, and it’s only going to get better. That’s the aerial robotics era.
And that’s an era that isn’t in the future because we’re in it right now, aren’t we?
We are! And it’s all driven by the need to become more efficient, effective and safer.
If you have 150,000 cell phone towers that have to be inspected in a certain timeframe, and someone is having trouble meeting that timeframe, then you’re not meeting the demands of the market. So then it’s a matter of creating that efficiency by operating beyond visual line of sight, or using a set of automated software that can make that happen.
That’s what demands this technology… the market’s demand for optimization and efficiency. Not us sitting in a room as “experts” and saying what the technology should look like. What causes these systems to evolve is the value they bring, which is realized technologically and iteratively.