April 20, 2022 – Soaring Eagle Technologies and President, Will Paden, was joined by Jon Damush, CEO of Iris Automation, and Trevor Perrott, CEO and Co-founder of Censys Technologies. The discussion focused on the FAA’s ARC (Aviation Rulemaking Committee) recommendation around BVLOS. They had a great discussion and answered questions from other industry professionals. What is the ARC? Which recommendations will be exciting to see and which will be hard to act on? Why are certain recommendations so important? See the recorded webinar or read the discourse below.
Have questions about sUAS inspection, aerial mapping, or BVLOS? Call or text Brendan Barrett at 281-857-6543 or pre-schedule a time to chat by phone [HERE].
BRENDAN: Well, it is 12:05 eastern or 9:05 am for the folks here in Pacific Time. We’ve got over 50 folks on the call so we’re super excited to jump into stuff.
My name is Brendan Alan Barrett. I work for Soaring Eagle Technologies. I want to welcome everybody to today’s panel discussion. Let me grab my notes here before we get too far into this.
Today I have the privilege of sharing the screen with Jon Damush. Jon brings over 30 years of aviation technology and executive leadership experience to the call. Building upon his technical background in engineering software development and systems integration. Jon is President and CEO over at Iris Automation. We’re excited to have him on the call. Any background you want to add to that bio?
JON: Yeah Brendan, I just want to say thank you for putting together this panel. I think there’s a lot of thirst out there for information relating to the FAA ARC report and the kind of impetus behind some of the recommendations. So, I’m really looking forward to the discussion and thanks for the invite.
BRENDAN: Well, we’re excited to have you!
Next on our panel is Trevor Parrot from Censys Technologies. Trevor is CEO and Founder. An aerospace engineer by training. Trevor has a background in systems and human factors engineering for companies like Gulfstream and Textron. As CEO Trevor drives Censys Culture – a culture in love with innovative problem-solving and a talented team obsessed with creating value. Problem number one on the list is enabling airborne economies with drones and flying cars. Trevor welcome to the call!
TREVOR: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. Happy to be here with Will and Jon!
BRENDAN: Well again, we’re excited to have you. Last but not least, because he’s the one that cuts my paycheck, Will Paden, welcome to the call.
Will has been a helicopter pilot for over 20 years now, both for the military as well as the private sector. In that time, he’s been a mechanic as well as an instructor. In 2015, he founded SEI, a regional UAS service provider that provided inspection patrol services along to electrical utilities and other large asset managers as well as mapping services. In 2021, he became the President of a new organization, Soaring Eagle Technologies, and currently leads a team that provides mapping inspection and patrol services nationwide. Will, welcome to the call.
WILL: Appreciate it, Brendan. And the flattery is noted.
BRENDAN: To kick things off, I think it’s probably smart that we understand what this ARC report that was recently published by the FAA is or was and you know kind of as a foundation for this this call. John, I want to kind of kick things off with you. As somebody who participated as part of the ARC, can you define what the Advisory and Rulemaking Committee for BVLOS is and the role it plays with the FAA?
JON: Yeah, happy too Brendan.
So, you know ARC’s are a tool that the regulator uses to basically solicit the input of industry. They invite certain representatives and representative organizations into those discussions to make recommendations on specific topics. The direction for our team was certainly beyond visual line of sight drone operations but it had some specific bounds put around it.
First, it was outside of controlled airspace. So, our charter was not to consider class alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, or even some elements of echo in the discussions although that’s inevitable because you know things aren’t quite that cut and dry. But primarily the discussion was around Class Golf Airspace and at or below 500 ft. AGL. One other directive that we received from the FAA is under no circumstances were we to make recommendations around passenger carrying aircraft. So, while a specific size was not dictated to us, i.e. the 55 pounds were lower, we were directed to consider smaller aircraft and you know when asked the question, “what a smaller mean”, well, that it doesn’t carry people. That’s kind of the framework that we were given.
The process of the ARC was largely broken up into two phases. Phase one was in a lot of ways a regurgitation of a lot of the problems we all kind of knew, but a compilation of them into a single place so that we had a reference list to start to march down and have deeper discussions in what became phase two, which was the ARC team split up into five working groups, each around very specific areas of focus, led by an individual leader. You’ll get to hear all of them at the symposium next week if you’re going to go on Thursday of the Xponential week. There’s a session which is the ARC leadership talking about the BVLOS ARC process and answering Q&A. Those leaders drove those work groups. Some of the work groups also formed kind of ad hoc cross-cutting work groups. I was fortunate enough to be a part of one of those which included an amazing set of diverse viewpoints from legacy aviation, as well as the new entrance to try to come up with inputs that ultimately made their way into the recommendations.
So, fundamentally I think it’s important for the audience to understand that the ARC report is not rule. The ARC report is a compilation of industry’s opinions and viewpoints and suggestions but they’re nothing more than that. The FAA doesn’t have to do any of them. They literally could rip up the report and throw it away and say “hey, thanks for your time”. They won’t do that. They were very engaged FAA personnel that were involved in the discussions, not in a position to opine. That’s not their role in the ARC process, but basically to be there to answer questions around process, around rules. I found it pretty valuable in that we were able to get some insight as to the history of certain rules and how they came about and that led to some good input for our discussions to talk about like okay, here were the reasons for that rules in the books in the first place. It’d be folly for us to recommend that that was wrong. Well, it’s there for a reason. So, if we understand the reason then we can start to think about how we iterate on top to get towards the goal of integrating drones in the national airspace.
I think I’ll end and pass it back to you by saying that my personal experience on the ARC was a good one. Does everybody agree with everything? Absolutely not. This is a large group of 92 people getting to consensus across that group is very difficult. But just about everybody was very engaged and frankly highly motivated. Even the legacy aviation groups you would think might not be, were highly motivated to integrate uncrewed aviation into our national airspace. We just want to do it safely. So, that’s a hard problem. Back to you.
BRENDAN: Very cool. My follow-up question to that was going to be: What does this mean? Is it law? The fact is that the FAA doesn’t have to act on any of this stuff. Again, very unlikely that they won’t. Otherwise, what’s the point of organizing the group and being so engaged in it in the first place? Before I turn things over to Trevor and Will, anything that surprised you or excited you about participating in that process?
JON: What surprised me is the fact that I didn’t expect to have a second job for nine months.
But you come into those things and you know people’s public positions and organizations public positions on certain issues and you kind of fasten your seatbelt and you’re like, “here we go”. But my experience in the discussions was very pleasant. A very highly educated and experienced group of professionals who are striving towards a common goal and were very respectful in terms of the way that we handled discourse and debate. When you’re engaged in teams like that, it’s really motivating and it’s energizing. So, I’d say that was the pleasant surprise. It took longer than any of us wanted it to but these are complex issues and as you start to peel back the layers of the onion, you realize “oh my gosh, we’ve got about a million layers to go”. We all wanted more time to research certain elements and be able to make more concrete recommendations backed by, you know, scientific information or empirical data or anything but you just run out of time to do that. So, now that ball is kind of in the FAA’s hands. To take our recommendations and see how they can incorporate those into rule going forward.
BRENDAN: Very cool, very cool. Well, Trevor, moving on to you. This report was published almost a month ago or maybe over a month ago. Having had a chance to kind of digest things, any initial thoughts? Anything that’s exciting you, surprising you, creating any reason for you to ask new questions?
TREVOR: First of all, I think our industry owes Jon and our colleagues that participated in that committee a great debt for going out there and giving their time generously for that period to get this report together.
Jon already touched on the fact that we don’t agree with every single component that was in that report but in terms of direction, I think it’s certainly pointed in the right one. Censys has published a formal statement about our corporate responsive thing and really, the only thing that stood out to us was the report suggested that there are some scenarios in which manned aircraft ought to yield to unmanned. Our official position on that is we think that UAS should accept the technical complication of figuring out how to do that to an equivalent level of safety that we currently see in the airspace. So, for example, drones, and I love to talk about it in past tense now because we have enough data to do that, drones have been safer than manned aviation in the national airspace, at least in a commercial context. Now, what does that safety mean? I think anybody can right off the bat and come poke a hole in that and go, “well, there have been plenty of drones put into trees” and the answer is “yeah, you’re probably right, but how many of those cause injuries how many of them cause death?” When that comes back with either very lower or a goose egg, I really think the industry has a leg to stand on now to say that this isn’t theory anymore. It’s proven – past tense. There’s evidence that we can do this safely.
I was talking about this the other day – so far, we’re closing in on about 30% of the beyond line of sight approvals in the U.S. under part 107 have been for the Centero. What that’s enabled us to do is we’ve actually seen people do it in the mountains. Your team at Soaring Eagle has done it in the desert and in the swamps and we’re really starting to get to a point where we can say factually, “here are the conditions that must be true for risk to be low”. Notice I didn’t say risk to be zero, I said risk be low and so long as risk is low, we ought to accept it. That’s our overarching response to the report – that in general, we ought to strive from both a technology, from a procedure perspective to make risk low but understand that risk-free is the enemy of progress.
BRENDAN: Understandable. Will, any initial thoughts on the report or your reaction after now having a chance to review it?
WILL: Definitely. I’m going to reiterate some of the things that Jon mentioned.
Some of the key takeaways for me were that we’re actually looking at this entire endeavor from more of a manned aviation perspective and that’s how Soaring Eagle has always operated. We’re a manned aviation company, and I tell this to everybody, we just happen to utilize unmanned technology as our primary tool. We know from over 100 years of manned aviation experience that what works and what doesn’t work in a lot of scenarios. Like Trevor was talking about, “how do we mitigate risk?” There’s processes and procedures that are in place. We throw around the terms loosely “ADM”, “CRM”, but aeronautical decision making is just as critical no matter what we’re doing and I like the fact that the FAA is buying into that we can truly integrate these two platforms, both manned and unmanned, and we can do it safely. I’m with Trevor.
What we do – flying helicopters along power lines, low and slow. That’s everybody talk about how that’s the bottom of the bucket, that’s the most dangerous flying we can do. We accept that risk, so why not accept a reduced version of that risk and put an unmanned aircraft up there that god forbid something does happen, the ramifications are much less. I’m really excited and I know it’s going to take an additional five years to get to the point where the FAA is actually looking at these rules and regulations. But I also understand that it takes a long time to truly process something as new as this. I know that UAS have been around for going on two decades with the military side, but that’s also a much different application, altitude, etc. There’s a lot more that goes into that as well, so really being pioneers of this market, Censys and Soaring Eagle, we’ve been here when there was no 107 and now we’re moving into an era of “let’s integrate this, let’s make this what it needs to be – a safe and productive commercial product.”
JON: Brendan, if I can riff on that for a second. I think both Trevor and Will touched on something that is kind of foundational to a lot of the discussions inside the ARC. First of all, let’s define what risk is. Risk is a two-dimensional measure. It’s probability x consequence and unfortunately in aviation, the consequence has typically been dire when an incident occurs. So, you peg that part of the scale and then everything just becomes a measure of your probability of that incident happening, which is why we have ten to the minus third, ten minus fifth, ten to the minus ten, nine, etc. But with drones, and both Trevor and Will just touched on this, the consequence is not always dire. So, all of a sudden, we have the second dimension of risk that needs to be calculated and this is one of the fundamental principles in the ARC recommendations and in all of our discussions is that, “hey, there has to be an acceptable level of risk here that we’re comfortable with”. Because like you said Will, you can crash a drone. It doesn’t mean anybody got hurt and if two drones crash in the forest, does it make a sound? Those kinds of things need to be evaluated.
We’ve all been in this industry a long time, from the early days of thinking about Ag, “that’s going to be the driver”. Well, now it very clearly seems to be infrastructure inspection as one of the biggest use cases and when you overlay where those things happen, they’re in pretty low risk areas. Not no risk, but low risk. So, perhaps there needs to be an acceptable level of risk that’s adopted. The public has already shown a level of acceptance in terms of aviation incident rate and consequences. Just taking one page out of the book, which is obviously our expertise, which is detect and avoid. There are still on average four midair collisions between crude aircraft every year in the United States. That’s not okay. That is a much higher probability than you expect it to be but the consequences are dire and when you start to look at the track record of small UAS and even medium-sized UAS operations, you do see a pretty stellar performance record. Sure, we’ve got our nit-noid things, engines and batteries, yeah, okay they’re less mature technologies than say a jet, but at the end of the day, the consequence of the failures is much less. So, this principle of acceptable level of risk I think is something that that has traction. We’ve seen regulators around the world including the FAA start to move towards a performance-based set of approvals that is basically centered on an acceptable level of risk for a given operation and I think, speaking for Iris, we support that. I think that’s a good path forward.
TREVOR: You know, it’s at a point where we’re closing in on 100 active BVLOS waivers in U.S. airspace so, at that point, you’ve got to walk away with this notion that the FAA has already identified what an acceptable level of risk means. One other thing that’s confusing to me and my see is with that condition being true, why can’t that acceptable level of risk be rolled out into rule soon? Why does that have to take years to do? Because the process is already in place with a strong record here to show that hey it’s being done almost on a daily basis and note the absence of death. Note the absence of any major accidents making the news. I think that that’s a very logical step for us to take, especially in the context of the ARC report as it’s written.
BRENDAN: My next question was going to be: of all these recommendations, is there things that you think should be short-term? Are these things that the FAA could move on more quickly versus other things that are going to be harder for the FAA to act on? That question goes out to everybody in the group. Is there anything that’s jumping out to you from this list of recommendations that is going to be harder for the FAA to act on as opposed to this idea of identifying acceptable risks? Maybe something that could or should happen sooner.
TREVOR: I’ll jump on that too. In the report you’ll see they talk about different energy thresholds and one increment there, I think it was 25,000-foot pounds and then the next one that gets talked about is 800,000-foot pounds. That’s a lot of energy at both of those levels and it’s also way above the threshold that’s in place right now for ASTM parachutes. So, the kinetic energy profile of those parachute systems ends up much, much less than what’s subscribed there. Now, that being said, once you’re up in the 800,000-foot pound arena, you’re talking about a light sport aircraft. There are people that literally strap a fan to their back and they go paramotoring every day and that’s fine even though you have this unmanned thing that isn’t carrying fuel and doesn’t have a human on board and it can’t. There’s a disparity there and I think what Jon commented about it, insurance requirements are going to drive a lot of things. I think that we’re going to see an insurance driven set of requirements that are probably more strict than what will end up in rule.
JON: I think that’s a really interesting comment, Trevor, because anybody that’s in the audience that rents aircraft for enjoyment, you know that it’s your FBO or your flight school’s insurance policy that really dictates whether or not you’re allowed to rent the airplane. The regulatory requirements of your currency of flight is like the table stakes. I think there’s a lot of truth in that observation that insurance and underwriters and lawyers inside large enterprises are really going to be the ones that drive the acceptable level of risk and the safety thresholds for any drone operation.
At least I can speak to my input on the ARC, when it comes to the acceptable level of risk, I was one of the voices that said don’t codify that and rule. That’s a measure. Track it. Measure it. Pursue improving it over time just like we do today with ten to the minus fifth, ten to the minus nine. Codifying that in rule could have some really unintended consequences and constraints that get put on a new industry where, I believe, we need to take advantage of innovation and iterative development and that’s something that aviation has a hard time with. So, let’s embrace this and not put an arbitrary number. As I tell my software developers, if you start to hard code a constant, step back and think about put it in the text file. I know I just dated myself in terms of programming there but the point is make it a variable that you can adjust. Don’t hard code it. I at least recommended to not hard code the acceptable level of risk. Instead, take a de minimis approach to what the rules should say that make clear where the accountability lies and then stop there as the regulator. You’ve done your job. You’ve pointed to the belly button who’s responsible or who broke the rule and then let industry and public determine the acceptable levels over time.
WILL: One of the things that I wanted to bring up was the fact that our customers are also going to drive a lot of that. What are they willing to accept as the risk level? What is their insurance company willing to accept? Everything we’re talking about today is a holistic approach. It’s not just one fraction of the process. It’s not “do you have processes that ensure safe operations, do you have training that ensures your personnel are trained and current?” That’s one of the things in there that I was really happy to see. The ARC hit on currency.
As a helicopter pilot and instructor, currency is huge because we tend to forget things over time. Human nature. We all know we can only retain so much information for so long. It’s no different when you start talking BVLOS. The aircraft that we’re going to be flying. They’re complicated for the UAS field. They’re not the plug and play where you can go and pick up the aircraft at lunch and be flying that afternoon because there’s a lot more systems on board you need to understand those systems and the limitations of those systems.
We always talk about, at Soaring Eagle, flying BVLOS is very similar to being a commercial instrument radio pilot. Essentially, that’s what you’re doing. You need to have that knowledge level that the risk I’m taking when I send this aircraft on this mission is x y z. You can quantify that in a thousand different ways if you want to but it’s really going to come down to each customer. What are they willing to accept? How far are they willing to let this go? And a lot of that is going to be driven by the insurance and the risk of management personnel. Some of these organizations are huge. They have literally teams of people that evaluate what is risk, how much do we accept, but I believe what Jon said earlier. The risk that is associated with these aircraft – it is quantifiable but it is nowhere near what it is for a traditional. Even a little Cessna 152 that weighs a couple thousand pounds has substantially more damage than any aircraft we fly today in the UAS market.
TREVOR: Will, I get asked on a pretty regular basis if Censys is going to get in the drone delivery business. To which I say that we already are and will continue to be except I’m not delivering packages, I’m delivering information.
A big part of this is trying to get enterprises’ information in a less risky way. Understanding how much of their assets they have and what condition those assets are in and doing that in a way that’s risk reducing, both from a from a financial risk, from a human life risk. You can point at it from a bunch of different angles and I think that’s the powerful value creator that UAS brings to the world. That the economics and the safety can both improve at the same time. I think what’s going to happen next is honestly continued investment from customers, capital, and so on to keep going down this road. Nobody’s happy it took five years to get to BVLOS ARC report. I think that’s a safe statement but we should celebrate that one exists when it didn’t before.
There’s almost a hundred active BVLOS waivers. That’s never been true before now. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s not all no progress. I think that we as an industry owe the FAA some respect too. We are asking them to increase the number of aircraft in the airspace by three orders of magnitude and I don’t think any of our taxes are going up by that same percentage so with that being said, the FAA has been asking for them and historically they’ve accomplished a very good safety record. For them to want to protect that, I think we should understand that and understand why that’s valuable.
BRENDAN: What do you think the next couple of years, and again this question goes out to everybody. On this call, we have asset managers engineers for utilities, we have mapping professionals, etc. What are those investments that they should be planning for and maybe what’s the low-hanging fruit? What are the first things that maybe they should focus on if they want the best chance of truly harnessing the economic benefit for whatever their organization is, whatever their business, from beyond visual line of sight?
WILL: I’ll jump in on that one, Brendan.
So, from most of my interactions with customers – we’re a service-based company so we have a lot of these discussions. I know me and you, Brendan, specifically, we talk to customers all the time. We talk those specifics. Is it economical to do my own internal program or is it more economical to hire out of DSP like Soaring Eagle? That’s one investment. They have to consider so many other things on that investment table so you have training, you’ve got to have insurance, you got to have aircraft, you got to maintain that aircraft fleet. That’s batteries. How do I recycle my batteries? How long do they last? You got to have multiple payloads depending on what type of job you’re doing and so there’s so many factors that go into that. And then you go to go, “okay, what is my end state of my program and what am I trying to complete?” Is it an inspection cycle? Do I just need an inventory of my assets? You keep that into some sort of a digital database. Just those couple questions, now you’ve got another 20 or 30 questions that you’ve got to answer. The investment could be anywhere from say a couple thousand dollars here and there to literally hundreds of thousands into the millions depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Every single program is going to have to really sit down and analyze what that end state is. It’s a very complicated question that you posed and I don’t know that there’s one tool that fits the the bill to fix what they’re trying to do. At Soaring Eagle, we operate a fleet of aircraft. We’ve got multiple aircrafts from multiple different manufacturers, each one of them very specific in what they do. There’s no such thing as one screwdriver in the electrician’s toolbox. He’s going to have three or four just depending on what he’s doing, so that’s my stance on what I think is coming with the investment piece. It’s going to be a very long, drawn out process trying to figure that out.
JON: I’ll add something that’s non-technical or even non-regulatory to this. I would say share what you’re doing that has a public benefit. One of the things that I think our industry is starting to do – I mean there’s certainly some elements of our business that are sharing the good that they’re doing with drones and we need to continue to do that. Because when you look inside the regulator, remember the regulator’s job and Trevor, I think you hit on it earlier, their job is to keep things safe. They’re by default biased to know when it comes to changing things because it’s not broken. Especially at the tactical level, the certification level, the inspector that’s going to approve your application, they’re doing what they were told to do based on their policies and procedures today. The way you change those is from the top down. So, at the policy level there needs to be momentum and initiative and the way you get that is by getting the public on board with what we’re trying to do with uncrewed aircraft.
I think an area of investment for enterprises to consider whether you’re a service provider, whether you’re an OEM, whether an end user, is share with the public what you’re doing and be very explicit about the benefit that you’re providing to the public. We haven’t even really gotten to the public interface yet and I would argue that the vast majority of the general public really doesn’t know what’s going on with drones unless they saw somebody fly DJI in the park. The stuff that’s actually happening commercially at the enterprise level is largely invisible to them so we need to do a better job of showing the benefits of that. Certainly, environmental benefits are very significant. The safety benefits – Will, you talk about those low altitude helicopter power line inspections – yeah, won’t catch me in one of those. They’re also expensive, so there’s economic benefit to being able to use drones to do missions like that which then could enable more frequent inspections.
So, with more frequent inspections comes less probability of a significant event that’s a public benefit so I would argue that we should all be considering investment and frankly, press. Sharing the good that’s being done and how that benefit translates to the general public and that’s going to help us on the regulatory side as well.
TREVOR: The year that we started Censys, there were 30 of those low altitude helicopter crashes just in electric utilities and it’s just one of those things where with my engineering background, I take a look at something and I go, “how can that be so in this century in this country?” It’s not just America. That can be said in every corner of the globe and I think drones are one of those revolutionary technologies that can help what we tend to describe as the developing world. They can skip a lot of the heartache that the developed world went through. Like in Africa, just a lot of pipeline integrity that we had to learn in North America for a century about how to keep liquids and gases flowing. Drones can help deliver that understanding of what the condition of the equipment is in near real time. That can help springboard a lot of these countries’ economies uh in a hurry.
BRENDAN: It sounds like obviously low-hanging fruit would be things that folks would be, whether you’re an asset manager or a mapping professional the investment, would come at things you’re doing more frequently. But to think that maybe you can go it alone and you can go from zero to everything you’d possibly be doing with a drone probably isn’t realistic or feasible. There’s a learning curve. Things that you’re not doing frequently. There’s a danger to doing that once a month, once a quarter, once a year, because now you’re relearning every time that you’re doing it. There’s probably a balanced approach to partnering with service providers, doing things yourself, growing your program. If you’re a utility, so many pilots a year up to a certain point and as that program grows in size and in experience then you’d be able to take on more and more of these things and that’s how you’re going to reach the economic benefit. Is that the consensus on this call?
WILL: I would say so, Brendan. That makes a lot of sense. At the end of the day, most of the people on here are at some sort of a decision-making capacity and we always talk about return on investment. What is that return on investment that makes everybody have that warm and fuzzy and it is going to be different for each organization but I would concur with what you said completely.
TREVOR: I think something I’ll highlight is that ROI can be nearly instantaneous if you stop one accident.
WILL: Yeah, helicopters are not cheap. Crashing one is very expensive.
TREVOR: Even an “expensive drone” is still going to come in at a twentieth of the upfront cost and then at about a sixth of the ongoing cost, past that point. I just think that whenever you can say something like that delivers better or equivalent information and you cut human risk out of it, so to make a lot of sense.
BRENDAN: Gotcha. For the folks live on the call, remember we’ve got the chat available. If you have questions, drop questions in in the chat area. I know we had some questions about insurance driving, certain aspects of risk tolerance earlier but if you have any more questions, we’ve still got time for today’s discussion so be sure to drop those comments in the chat area. We’ll be sure to get those answered before the call is over or again in follow-up if all of a sudden there’s a flood of questions.
To end users to service providers, it sounds like there’s a long road to truly harnessing the economic benefit.
In addition to some of the regulatory things that are going to evolve in time, it sounds like the big opportunity is that there’s not a lot of regulation right now. Certain things are allowed, certain things are not but again there’s not a ton of regulation to wade through. What are some of the challenges that end users should be mindful of? One, it sounds like everybody on this call is in agreement that the unmanned aviator is responsible for their interaction with manned aircraft. That sounds like that’s a big problem or challenge or responsibility that’s handled by training and a lot more than what it would take just to simply pass a part 107 exam but true aeronautical decision making. Any other thoughts, questions on what folks should be preparing for or looking out for if you know in the next five, ten, fifteen years they want to truly be able to harness the economic benefit of beyond visual line of sight flight?
JON: I think I’ll say this Brendan.
There’s a set of rules today that allow people to go flying and I think us as an industry, the more we can do to comply with those rules, the more we’re helping ourselves because we’re working the way the regulator understands how to work. Do there need to be some changes? Certainly. There’s certain things just written into the rules. I can share just an anecdote from my own experience when I was at Boeing subsidiary Insitu. We first started talking to the FAA about type certifying a scan eagle, which by the way has a seven-inch tube for the fuselage. The requirement was to have 12-inch end numbers stuck to the side of the airplane. That would obviously wrap around the tube, not going to be able to read it.
There are things that need to be changed that aren’t quite as comical as that, that have a significant impact on how we go about designing, building, and deploying drones. But at the same time, if we can do things to work within the existing rule sets, then we’re helping ourselves out. I would say focus there.
I see that Robert Wilheit had a question in there about low-flying helicopters and not using ADS-B. This goes to one of the most contentious recommendations that’s in the ARC report which Trevor highlighted early in his intro. There’s a recommendation in there that when below 500 feet at class golf airspace, if a crewed aircraft is not equipped and what that means is not transmitting electronic position through either ADS-B or TABS then it’s the crude aircraft that must yield the right-of-way. I personally disagree with that because I’m a commercial pilot flight instructor. I spend time at low altitude in training missions and you’re not always an aircraft that are equipped with ADS-B because you operate an environment where it’s not required so I tend to believe that the right-of-way rules that are already on the books are actually quite sufficient to handle this problem. It’s just that a lot of us, as the new entrants into the space, we perceive that we have to be as good as a human, technically, and that looks really hard to do and then puts like heavy weight on the aircraft or too much power draw and now your mission endurance goes down.
My position on the ARC to this issue is, look, just reevaluate what good enough is and I would argue that there are technical means available today to ensure that no two aircraft ever trade paint. Does it mean they’re going to stay two thousand feet apart from one another? Maybe not. Does it mean they stay 500 feet from one another? Yeah, actually. So, is that good enough when you’re below 500 feet? I would argue it is. It might be uncomfortable for somebody in a paraplane that sees a drone cruise by 500 feet away. But guess what? It was 500 feet away. I think there’s aspects of that, back to your question around what we can do, read the rules. Understand how you can comply with the rules as written and then pick your battles. When I say battle, I mean then be very laser focused on what you’re asking the FAA to provide you a waiver or an exemption for and you’re going to increase your probability of getting a yes.
WILL: Also, something else about the low flying. I spent a fair amount of time ‘low and slow’. Also on the military side, we specifically train to fly 100 feet or lower under all types of weather conditions. What is the actual time frame at which there’s going to be a UAS and a manned aircraft in the same area? That’s something that needs to be evaluated and discussed. I don’t know that anybody can ever actually come up with a number. I know me and Trevor have discussed this in the past. I’m going to guess that I could probably win the lottery three times over if you want to start looking at those numbers. What is that time frame? I think it’s education, it’s communication, it’s making sure that we as an industry understand what’s going on.
There’s implementation plans in place to ensure that these aircrafts are not in the same place at the same time. For instance, the electric utilities when they’re doing patrols, they know where their aircraft are. They know where they’re patrolling for that day. Crop dusters, the Ag world. We communicate within Mississippi with the local Ag communities so if we’re out flying near fields that we know there’s activity going on it’s as simple as we send out notification. “Hey, we’re going to be in the same general area on this day.” If we communicate, we eliminate a lot of that risk. Even not having capabilities, I think there’s still other measures in place today, like Jon was saying. We have the rules in place, we just need to communicate a little bit better. I think that would help a lot of it.
Also, I’m not trying to take over, Brendan, but I do want to talk about the implementation. I’ve seen a lot of people make comments over there on the side. Jon, during your process did y’all have internal discussions on when it should be implemented and decisions being made? I know it’s in the 381-page document that I read but what was the sentiment amongst the ninety plus people? Is this something that y’all were like “hey, this needs to be implemented rather quickly” and by quickly I’m talking a year or two because we are talking the government. Or does it need more data points before they start making implementation? I’m just curious.
JON: Yeah, I think the vast majority of the answer is yesterday. We’ve all been investing and pursuing activities in this market. Some more safety focused than others but for the most part everybody wants to turn this into an economically viable thing so rules as soon as possible. That said, that enthusiasm and that momentum has to be tempered by safety and that’s where the rubber meets the road and this gets really hard. My read of this, purely Jon speaking, is that boy anybody that was around for the remote ID ARC and the resulting rulemaking process that led to that or even the part 107 process to get 107 on the books knows that this is not an overnight job.
Most of those recommendations were much less contentious than some of the ones that are in the current BVLOS ARC report so while we all want it as soon as possible, and that includes a lot of the legacy operators, they want clarity around these rules too. Especially the helicopter community who spends a lot of time at low altitude. What they don’t want are people just saying “ah, screw it, I’m not going to wait for the rules, I’m going to go fly anyway” and you know as unfortunate is to say there are people that do that. So, getting rules is actually helpful to everybody involved in the NAS and therefore we’re all kind of motivated to get this done. But in all practicality, I don’t think we see a new rule on the books for at least two years.
WILL: That makes sense. Jeff, I see your question. This is just Will Paden’s opinion on being grandfathered in. I believe that if you’re doing things to a manned aviation standard, as far as your training capabilities, your personnel in the right place, in the right positions, with the right experience, I think the FAA will have to evaluate you in “grandfather you in”. I think that’s just a natural flow and it’s more beneficial for the FAA to just grandfather you in because if they have to evaluate every single operator to a brand new standard, we’re talking ten to fifteen years down the road before this becomes viable.
So, I think if you’re doing it in the right way, you’re taking a part 91 type 135 mindset towards your operations, I think being grandfathered in is going to be the path that the FAA even wants. That’s my stance.
JON: Couldn’t agree more, Will. You know, SMS, right? Think in terms of safety management systems. If you follow those processes and that doesn’t mean you have a binder on the shelf that you pull out and say hey here’s my SMS. It’s a culture. It’s a culture of doing things the right way with safety as your primary goal. The FAA is going to look favorably on that.
TREVOR: Yeah. I think it’s important to highlight that companies that make the investment early are setting the standard to which the FAA is going to look at in the future. Just to be able to do BVLOS at all right now, you’ve got to install a lot of the core SMS functions that come from the prior century of aviation. So, all that together, would I apply the word “grandfather”? I mean, not really. You’re kind of the standard bearer.
WILL: I agree with that and it’s important for the industry that there’s enough organizations out there that are doing it the right way so that when those times come the FAA can say yes, our standard is something that’s achievable. We’re not you know being too restrictive or we’re not we’re not putting so many rules out there that this can’t be a viable option for another way to inspect assets. We need a group of people out there that are like-minded, that are driving this industry in the right direction. And it’s not just one company. There’s no way just Soaring Eagle or one of the other drone service providers out there. Look at the OEM side. Censys and Trevor. Just because they’re trying to do it the right way, that’s not enough. It takes a group of people to ensure that this is successful.
JON: One last point, Brendan, I saw you change the slide.
BRENDAN: I’m not rushing you off. We can go over.
JON: Okay, great. I thought that was like the music that plays at the academy. Johnathan Daniels asked a question about impression on dissenting opinions described in in appendix after the BVLOS ARC report.
I’ll invite everybody on this call to go look at that. These positions that are incredibly well considered by very experienced professionals, aviators, rule makers, etc. Read them. Understand those different positions because where this process goes next is the FAA will compile. They’re working internally and they will publish a draft proposed rulemaking. The public then has, not just the opportunity, I would argue the obligation, to read it, and comment. That’s the window of opportunity that all of us have. Some of us, we’re privileged enough to be on the ARC but for those that weren’t, this is your time. Read those appendices, understand what the contrarian positions were to the general ARC report, and prepare your own position and ideas. I’ll end by saying the regulator is not going to solve problems for us. That is not their job. They don’t innovate, they don’t engineer. They test, check, and approve. It is our job to prove to them that what we’re doing can be done as safely, if not safer, than existing crude aviation approaches to similar use cases. So, thanks for bringing that up, John. I think it’s a really good point.
I’ll also share with everyone that there was a massive amount of additional material that was provided to the FAA that’s not the official report which actually chronicles a lot of the detailed work that was done in each of the work groups. As lengthy as the report is, it is the tip of the iceberg. And there’s a lot more information that got provided to the regulator that they have to consume, compile, and turn into something that can turn into a draft NPRM. That’s all I wanted to say about that. Thanks again for the opportunity to be on this on this panel.
TREVOR: I’ll be brief on a comment there too. I think we should celebrate the fact that appendix F exists in that report, period. It is important to allow dissent to exist and to honestly hear it. Not just hear it for the intent of responding, but like you said, these were some of our industries best that got put forward here. And if somebody has a voice of descent, it exists for a very solid reason. In the future, let’s say 100% of the ARC was implemented tomorrow and then bad things happen after that point, those voices of dissent, we should be able to have the humility to recognize that they were correct and make changes. This overall culture thing of “we should be able to have debate and then memorialize those that weren’t with the majority”.
WILL: I definitely appreciate Trevor, Jon, Brendan, y’all’s time today. Everybody that was able to join us, conversations that you were able to bring up. We really appreciate the time and look forward to potentially doing this again in the future as the environment changes and we have more to discuss.
BRENDAN: Yeah, thanks again guys for being willing to participate in today’s discussion and thank you for everybody who joined and participated in the chat area with your questions. If you do have any questions, I can get it routed to the appropriate person. You can just email me at email@example.com. But thanks again everybody. It was a real pleasure being on this call with the panelists and again thanks for everybody who was able to join today.
TREVOR: Thanks so much for the opportunity. Thanks, Brendan.