Do you know anyone thinking about the future of aviation?

If you do, please make an introduction for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of aviation lately.  I’m trying to write a major piece for Patrick Egan at sUAS News and also thinking about this for reasons related to my business.  I’m not sure that we in the unmanned aviation community have done enough to think about what the future of the aviation industry is like.  Clayton Christensen’s Seeing What’s Next has a great discussion of disruption in aviation, but even though it was written in 2004, it makes nary a mention of unmanned aircraft.  Steve Morris at MLB Company also was kind enough to have lunch with me last week and talk about what he sees coming.

Photo Credit: DARPA / DTIC.mil

Hypothesized Developments in Aviation from Unmanned Aircraft:

-Aircraft building, particularly on the low end will approach a commodity industry more analogous to PCs or cellphones than current aircraft building paradigms.

-Unmanned aircraft companies (both builders and operators) are going to look more like software or networking companies than they are going to look like industrial companies, this has implications for both human resource practices and the capital structure of the companies.

-Scheduling, routing, and planning will be done according to the new paradigm.  Currently in aviation, everything is optimized around getting the most out of any particular flight hour or unit of plane time.  Unmanned flips this on its head and allows for the aircraft to be treated like other tools that wait on the main job.  Don’t know when you’ll need the plane up?  That’s okay, we’ll park it in the sky (maybe doing a lower value mission) until you need it.  Want to go from point A to B?  Great we’ll take you there, directly, when you want to go.  We will not worry about crew duty cycles, hubs, or returning the plane to its home base.

-Large airports will loose their centrality to the system–this is not to say they will experience a decline in traffic, but rather, they will not be the key limits on a network-like system of small airfields and ad hoc landing or operating sites (think more like a heliport than an airport).

Predicted Market Effects:

-Differentiation and customization will likely become the norm in unmanned aircraft operations.  Most airlines are pretty undifferentiated, but when the business customer is going to tie their ERP system to their aerial service provider’s dispatch system and automatically task aerial missions based on orders, sustained relationships and differentiated services are going to be much more meaningful.

-Data gathering / reconnaissance is likely to switch almost entirely to unmanned systems after the FAA changes the rules.

-Air Cargo is going to be significantly changed, mostly at the interface between trucking and air, with more work being done by air and less by trucking.

-In the long run personalized aviation, whether that is passenger aviation or other types of aviation consumption is going to be the big development.  Aircraft of today are like mainframes of the 70’s.  Only anointed experts who get to go into the restricted area can operate these machines.  Unmanned aircraft are going to be like PC’s, so cheap and easy to use that anyone can have one.  The possibilities here are quite remarkable.  Data collection, aerial work, cargo, and passenger transport are likely to feel the effects of this shift.

-Long haul, passenger, mass transportation will be the last segment to be effected.  The first segments to be effected will be small, light-weight, short duration applications.

So what else?  

I don’t really have a clear idea of how this effects incumbents.  It will definitely be change.  On the one hand, I think that the big guys at the top of the market will be fine.  I don’t expect Boeing or the airlines to disappear.  On the other hand, I don’t think that axis will have the control over aviation that they do today.  They will be more like bus companies and builders in the large automotive industry.

The cult of the pilot will be diminished (as it already is in military aviation) and air travel will continue to be democratized.  I believe that we are witnessing something akin to the introduction of the automobile.  Prior to the automobile, mechanized transportation had been too expensive and hard to use for anyone that was not an expert.  Prior to aerial automation, aircraft were too expensive and hard to use for anyone but an expert.  That’s changing, if we can hurry up the FAA, we have an amazing industrial explosion ahead of us.

Is a dollar worth a dollar on a tech company’s balance sheet?

Previously, dear reader, you and I have discovered that robotics companies are firmly entrenched in the knowledge economy and their assets look like other knowledge economy companies’s assets.  Robotics companies only hold only a limited amount of real assets but lots of financial assets.

As a related question, what is the value of the cash (and financial assets) on the balance sheet to investors?  There might be several issues with holding so much cash.  Particularly, money in a company should be employed making more money, ‘earning or returning’ as the saying goes.   Are there valid reasons to hold so much cash?  And if so, how should we value the cash that knowledge economy companies hold?

Cash Is King! (Or at least a founding father)

Bottom line up-front:  Valuations are always wrong.  What’s interesting is how they are wrong.  Assuming a dollar is worth a dollar is as good a rule as any, but is almost always wrong.  Nobody is really sure which way (too much or too little) it is wrong.  Below, is an elaboration of some of the issues with valuing cash which may come into play when valuing particular companies.  (And you thought that at least cash of all things had a fixed value  —  don’t we all wish!)

There are various criticisms of excess cash on the balance sheet, below are some of the most common.

1)  Holding the extra cash reduces returns, i.e. to buy into the business you have to buy a pile of cash beyond what is ‘necessary’ to run the business.  Further, the rate of return on cash has been essentially zero and certainly below inflation lately, so holding the portfolio the stock represents of a highly profitable business, plus cash must necessarily produce a lower expected return than just the business.

2)  Because of agency problems, management may be incentivized to use the cash to reduce volatility or ‘save’ the business if it falls on hard times, even if the investors could get a markedly higher rate of return in the market.  From an investor’s point of view this would be systematically wasting money.  Employees, customers, management, and trading partners might have a very different view.

3)  Holding lots of cash is said to signal that the company does not have profitable investment opportunities commensurate with the cash that it is generating and the company’s growth may slow in the future.  Further, holding lots of cash signals that you don’t know, or are ignoring, the traditional Anglo-Saxon business administration.  English speaking investors generally expect management to maximize monetary returns over the forecasting horizon and put shareholder interests ahead of all others.

Some countervailing points that you will often hear are along the following lines. 

A)  Although holding cash reduces returns, for a volatile security like a fast growing knowledge economy company, having cash on the balance sheet dramatically reduces volatility.  If investors want more exposure to the underlying business for the same initial investment, lever-up.  Since we are talking about cash holdings, buying on margin is almost a perfect antidote to management’s lackadaisical cash management policies if you feel that way.  [But seriously, who is their right mind thinks you need to lever-up when buying tech stocks?]

B)  Although management might ‘burn’ cash saving a failing business, which would be better redistributed to investors, more likely, they are going to have the flexibility to engage in acquisitions and new ventures without having to deal with the whims of the security markets.  [Has anyone seen a rational market lately?  Please let me know.]

Or has anyone read the Wall Street Journal?  Tech companies are routinely attacked for having their fixed life fund investors exit—Groupon and Facebook each got front page hatchet jobs over the past two days with nary a mention that these funds had been planning to sell now for, oh say, 8-10 years!  Talk about journalistic malpractice.  Would you want to go to the public markets in that environment?  I sure wouldn’t.  If I was management, I’d say that if investors are that irrational, I’ll keep the cash and do what they should have done with the money.

C)  Finally, although cash on hand may sometimes signal that the companies are running out of investment opportunities, it certainly signals to would be competitors that the said company is in a position to stick around for a long time and bitterly contest any erosion of their market position.  This may greatly enhance the value of the underlying business asset.

D)  This is a successful tech company.  It is run by the founders, for the founders (i.e. management).  If you don’t want the privilege of investing and taking whatever returns the founders deign to give, please step aside and allow the next investor to purchase stock.  But this isn’t really a justification.  Founders are investors too, especially once the company goes public, with theoretically the same motivations as other investors since their stake is highly liquid.

Further research on technology companies and their cash management policies should address the following issues:

I)     Are there structural reasons beyond the creation of new businesses and defense of existing businesses for technology/knowledge companies to hold lots of cash?  It does not occur to me that there is anything about a maturing knowledge business that seems to require massive amounts of cash.  Law firms and accounting firms do not seem to hold too much cash, but they are also typically private and can make much more drastic changes than public companies.

II)   Are there frictions between the interests of various classes of investors?  Particularly when there is a founder controlled/managed company, cash on the balance sheet is probably as good to them from a control perspective as cash in the bank and better from a tax perspective.  Should investment banks or others creating the classes of stock have new mechanisms to deal with this?

III)  What are the true limits on investment opportunities?  My firsthand observation has been that the greatest constraint on growth of robotics companies is management attention.  It may be that most technology companies have massively profitable investment opportunities, but management attention is engaged on current projects and hiring into the management circle is not that easy.  What is the needed resource to change this?  How can cash be used to obtain this resource?  Can it?  Is passion required?

IV)  Are there ways that management could resolve some of the market frictions that require them to hold lots of cash?  The public markets seem to mercilessly abuse tech companies—no they don’t look like utilities, but the highs and lows that they are pushed to seems unjustified—there just doesn’t seem to be enough new information about their future prospects to justify either one.  Can management take steps to make access to public markets, particularly debt markets more reliable?  Could banks make money by providing massive, typically undrawn, lines of credit that would provide much of the same protections to management?