VLAB: Drones – the commercial era takes off, but breaking the law is going to blow-up in our faces

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending VLAB: Drones – The Commercial Era Takes Off at Stanford GSB.   The event was truly fantastic and the panel was amazing.  The moderator was Chris Anderson, former editor at Wired and CEO of 3D robotics.  I’m really struck by how much he has become the face of the commercial drone industry.  From his appearances on NPR and print media, he’s probably the most recognized drone advocate.  He makes some very powerful points.  Fueled by Moore’s Law and the cellphone industry supply chain, unmanned aircraft technology is coming and we’ve got to prepare for it.  Like it or not, the drone/robotic era is coming–it doesn’t have to be scary–all kinds of things are possible.

VLAB Drones Panel at Stanford GSB March 19th, 2013

VLAB Drones Panel from left to right: Chris Anderson, 3D Robotics; Helen Greiner, Cyphy Works; Zach Schildhorn, Lux Capital; Jonathan Downey, Airware; Matthew Pobloske, BAE

The one theme that deserves the attention of our industry at large, promoted by Chris Anderson, was that many people in our industry are operating in a “legal gray area” (read: violating regulations because they think the regulations are stupid and won’t be enforced) and that operating in the “gray area” is a good thing that will force regulatory movement.  Anderson gave two examples of this “gray area.” He talked about how ridiculous it was to be violating export controls by turning Lego Mindstorms into what could be considered a cruise missile guidance system.  Later he talked about flying drones in contravention to the FAA regulations governing the use of unmanned aircraft.

The FAA regulations are pretty clear, and let’s stipulate that they are stupid.  However they are the rules, and they have worked pretty well for the FAA’s primary goal of keeping people from getting killed by aircraft.  Technologists in general and Silicon Valley in particular take a dim view of regulations promulgated under the old order (e.g. Lyft, Uber, AirBnB).  I’m not completely outraged when technologists facilitate contract formation between consenting adults, even if local regulation contravene some of the particulars of the contracts.  However, let’s be clear that is absolutely not what we’re talking about when it comes to aircraft.

When it comes to aircraft–manned or unmanned–one of the main beneficiaries of regulation is the people on the ground.  This isn’t renting your room to some strangers who choose to be there; it is hurtling a heavy object over the heads of people who haven’t consented to be part of an experiment.  Our society rightly asks the government to ensure that activities that impose risk on others, especially those that did not consent, be minimized.  We need to update our regulations, but aircraft operators need to respect the letter and spirit of the law as it stands.  What standards do we have if not the law?   If we follow the path of breaking all the rules, someone is going to accidentally kill a  sympathetic bystander.  Beyond the personal tragedy that will create, that accident will set back our industry and the benefits we can provide to society by a decade.

In Afghanistan, one of my planes almost smacked into a helicopter–but it was the helicopter, not the drone–who had come, without clearance or radio calls, into an active artillery firing ROZ (restricted operating zone–an airspace control measure to make sure that aircraft don’t run into artillery fire).  Similarly, the first full sized drone and manned aircraft collision had the C-130 violating airspace control measures around the airfield.  Pilots are not infallible and often break the rules.   The best drone operators have a different safety culture.  Military drone safety culture is one where there is proper approval for everything, because every move will be recorded and second guessed.  I hope this culture will permeate the civilian unmanned aircraft community as well.

Although breaking the rules might move us toward our unmanned enabled future a little bit faster, this is an incredibly dangerous path for our industry and our bystanders.  The closing thought of VLAB Drones was that unmanned aircraft will eventually make the airspace safer for all users.  The panel wondered if this was hyperbole, but it is inevitable when drones have a strong safety culture.  Conversely, as long as we are the irresponsible jerks of the air, safety conscious regulators–like the FAA –will be unsupportive of us flying.    When we, as a civilian unmanned aircraft industry, can be counted on as strong safety partner, and when general aviation and commercial aviation are learning safety lessons from us, there will be no more foot dragging.  We will get our airspace and the drone revolution will finally be here.

In the meantime, seriously, don’t do anything that could kill anyone, please–especially if it is illegal.  You will ruin it for the rest of us.

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.

Needless Deaths

Fire season has just begun this year and already there have been two needless deaths that can be attributed to the FAA and Forest Service’s failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technology.  There is absolutely nothing about the fire reconnaissance mission or the tanker mission that cannot be done better, cheaper, and more safely by an unmanned aircraft.  These men did not need to be in that plane.

The crazy thing about it is that the Forest Service/BLM incident commanders are some of the few people in North America that can actually tell the FAA to go pound sand.  They get to put up a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) over their fire and they control all air traffic in the TFR.  Wildfire response crews do not do any night operations because it is considered too dangerous for them to fly at night.  Still, the powers that be have not allowed unmanned aircraft to play a substantial role in firefighting despite successful demonstrations in 2008.

My most sincere condolences to the families of these men.   They are exactly the kind of people that we need more of in society–people that will take risks to protect us all.  We–as a country and a society–are literally killing these people with our failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technologies.  I don’t want to be unsympathetic to the difficulties of change in government organizations and the good work that I’m sure the employees at Forest Service and BLM are doing, but when we’re making widows and orphans with our crappy policy, we all need to step up to the plate to take action to change it.

If I were the U.S. Congress I would:

1)   Call in the FAA, Forest Service, and BLM and tear them all a new one for their foot dragging on unmanned aircraft.

2)  Mandate the conversion of the whole tanker and most of the fire reconnaissance fleet to unmanned aircraft within 5 years.

3)  Direct the Forest Service and BLM to provide unmanned aircraft support at night in the TFRs to incident commanders this fire season.

4)  Give the BLM and the Forest Service some money to do this.  One of the main problems with wildfire firefighting is that there is a negligible advance procurement budget, but a nearly unlimited budget for reimbursement of labor to fight fires.  This is not a good deal for the country, spend a little bit in advance and lets save lives and money next fire season and every season thereafter.