Hannan Parvizian, Volansi co-Founder and CEO, recently had the opportunity to chat with Micheal Huerta, Volansi advisor and former Administrator at Federal Aviation Administration. Michael shared his perspective on what integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace looks like currently, the challenges companies are facing, and what the future may hold for the unmanned industry. 
Here is Part 1 of their conversation: 

Hannan: I feel like other countries are so much farther ahead in the integration of unmanned aircrafts into the national airspace and although the FAA has made significant strides, I feel the US should be the leader in the innovation and integration adoption. What is your perspective on why this has been such a long process?

Michael: Going way, way back when we were first talking about how we integrate drones into the national airspace, I think it is important to understand that the FAA’s approach has always been integration, as distinct from segmentation, which other countries have adopted. Taking that one first, segmentation is you set aside a certain airspace, and the drones can operate there freely. What traditional aviators would say, the real aviation takes place in other areas according to rules that have been well-defined. In many respects, it’s easier to go a segmentation approach. You just divide up things, and everything is wonderful because they operate separately.

The US adopted the integration model largely of necessity. We have a very large general aviation community, larger and more diverse than anywhere else in the world. We have a lot of complexity in our airspace. Yes, we have a lot of wide open areas, where you’re not going to run into conflict, but what drone operators want is the ability to operate in urban areas, where we have some of our most complex and heavily used airspace. By definition, if you adopt an integration approach, it is going to be harder because you have to figure out how all of these different uses can coexist. It looks like a really big sky, but there’s actually a lot that’s going on there on any given day.

That’s been the philosophy that has been driving the US. The question then is, if we want to integrate, how do we get there? Through programs like the IPP (now the BEYOND program) that the FAA and DOT had recently worked through, through a lot of activities that different companies have initiated, the FAA has adopted a philosophy of trying different things, such as “let’s provide waivers or limited authorities for companies to experiment and let’s see if we can develop frameworks and operations that are workable.” We will use the information that we develop as learnings that will eventually inform what the ultimate structure and regulatory framework would be. 

You also have the work that has been led primarily by NASA on unmanned traffic management. NASA is an important research partner of the FAA. They do amazing work in trying to understand some of the big questions that are out there. 

Where are we today? What do I see as the challenges? I think that we have had some very successful demonstrations from a lot of this experimentation that is taking place.

I think the danger is that we can view these demonstrations as significant progress. I believe that it is a false sense of progress if we are not at the same time doing the hard work to answer the question – how do we make this permanent? What are the regulations that are needed? What are the operating practices that we need to develop? What are the important decisions that we need to make about technologies that are going to inform this going forward?

A year ago, I was thinking we’re falling into this trap of ad-hoc decision-making. I am encouraged by some of the recent activities, particularly the long-awaited release of the Remote ID rule, followed by the release of the rules relating to operations over people, and night operations. What’s falling into place are more durable and permanent structures, which give the drone companies what they need – a level of certainty.

It’s wonderful to receive a waiver or authority where you can start operating and you can demonstrate to the public the benefit of something, but you can’t build a business off of that. You can only build a business off of having a durable and permanent structure that you can operate within. I think that’s where much more progress needs to be made. 

Hannan: Yes. Michael, on that point, so there’s two points here. You talked about integration and segmentation, but then in the larger scheme, you also see a transformation, because one of the ideas I always have is that I don’t know that in the long run if this technology is just going to be integrated within the existing ecosystem. I think at some point it’s going to transform the way we think about infrastructure in general, whether it’s on the ground or in the air. Do you share a similar point of view?

The second question to your earlier point is, yes, five, six years ago, there was no framework. How do we actually make this happen and how do we integrate drones? To your point, I think there’s now a framework. Especially for deliveries, it’s Part 135, get your certificate, get airspace integration for remote ID. Then there’s still the elephant in the room, is how do you do BVLOS? No one has an answer for that. What are your thoughts around that?

Michael: Let me take the first question first. I do think there’s a transformative element. I think that everyone understands that on an intellectual level. It’s a really hard thing to jump to, for want of a better word, on an emotional level. The reason for that is that the aviation culture is a very cautious culture. It’s very risk-averse. It’s very change-averse because aviation has been blessed with a wonderful safety record through a lot of hard work. Nobody wants to mess that up.

There is always a fear that if we try something new, it’s going to somehow upset this very carefully balanced system that operates incredibly efficiently and incredibly safely. That is one of the biggest challenges that we have to work through. How do we develop a level of comfort that we can have faith in new technologies that can fundamentally transform and improve the efficiency of the system? The only way I know to do that is for everyone to be very transparent and very open with what they’re trying to accomplish and why it makes sense. That’s the benefit of collaboration in aviation. It can be frustrating. It may take a long time.  But it is time well spent.  

It’s always interesting to me to talk to companies that are in the technology space and talking to companies in the more traditional aviation space. A technologist will say that the weakest link in the traditional aviation system are the humans. That there are ways to use technology to compensate for the fact that we all know that human beings are not perfect. In the aviation space, your fallback is almost always the human. That the human will be there to respond and ensure a level of safety when the technology fails. 

They’re both right.

There are important arguments that both of them have, and we have to figure out how to make that coexist. It’s not one or the other. It is really a question of how do those two very different points of view get incorporated into how we ultimately operate the system overall? You used the word transformation. I think that’s exactly right, but that transformation is as much cultural as technological. We have to get comfortable with operating in a different way.

The stakes are very high because the public is very unforgiving about what they would view as lapses of safety in aviation. Companies like Volansi are approaching this in the right way. You’re not just saying, “get out of our way and let us do what we want to do.” I think you quite correctly recognize that if that was done and if there was a terrible accident, that would be bad for business and could set the industry back for decades.

We have to figure out how we can collaborate more effectively. On one level, everyone knows, we have to get there. On another, everyone is struggling with, “Okay, well, how do we do that?” You made the comment about BVLOS, that nobody really has a good answer to that right now. There are some really interesting things that people are doing to try to develop answers to that. Some of the work, for example, companies like Zipline are doing, where they have developed technologies and now they’re in the process of collecting performance data.

There is the work from years ago that was originally led by BNSF Railroad, where they were using their fixed infrastructure to make the case that they could guarantee that even though they were operating beyond visual line of sight, that they were operating in a known place based on where their infrastructure is. The industry and the agency really need to focus on what success looks like.  They also need to focus on how we narrow the scope of the problem we’re trying to solve and come up with standards of performance that will enable the industry to move forward.  

Click here to continue reading Part 2 of Michael and Hannan’s fireside chat.