A visit with President Trump
It’s not everyday that startup founders receive invitations to the White House. So when my cofounder Greg McNeal and I got the call last week, it was quite an honor to accept.
Greg and I joined CEOs of both large corporations and startups at the White House on Thursday in an open and constructive conversation about drones and 5G/IoT technologies. We were humbled to have the opportunity to represent AirMap and the drone industry alongside CEOs of Honeywell, GE, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and more. Other drone industry companies participating in the meetings included Kespry, Precisionhawk, Measure, and Trumbull Unmanned.
Our day started with a breakout session on UAS led by the Deputy Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey Rosen. At the same time as our session, separate breakouts were held on the topics of 5G/IoT and venture capital. Following the breakouts, the three groups came together for a roundtable moderated by President Donald Trump. Joining the President were Vice President Mike Pence, the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner, and Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump, as well as Rosen. The President also observed demonstrations of drone technology from Kespry and 5G technology from Sprint.
The United States benefits from an enviable aviation safety record. Millions of Americans board airline flights every single day with essentially complete confidence that they will reach their destinations safely. Aviation industry professionals and FAA officials work tirelessly day-in and day-out to assure this level of safety and public trust. When Congress decided that small drones should be regulated as aircraft, the FAA took responsibility for managing them with the tools and frameworks at their disposal.
But the tools with which the FAA can regulate are constraining. We need to bring innovation to the way the FAA does business, and this was the primary message industry delivered to the President and his team Thursday. We also made clear to the administration that much of the innovation in drones is driven by the model aircraft and DIY communities, and we must continue to foster growth of this community through flexible rules that provide the necessary structure for safety, but are not unnecessarily over-the-top.
Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management (UTM) is a public-private collaboration, led by NASA, and powered by a thriving and innovative drone industry. UTM provides a system of technologies and operating rules that solve the public’s concerns regarding safety, security, privacy, and nuisance. UTM is not just about “traffic” as the name would imply — preventing two drones from colliding with one-another is a need that will emerge in the future, but we have many, many years ahead of us before we reach the traffic density where this becomes a real threat. In the meantime, we need to open the airspace to increasingly complex operations, such as flights over people and extended/beyond visual line of sight operations. Capabilities such as geofencing, remote identification, and flight notification and authorization are components of UTM that are ready today and must be rapidly deployed to allow the industry to continue to innovate and bring amazing drone-enabled services to people and businesses. Interestingly, Amazon noted in a Bloomberg article today that they need better low-altitude, micro-scale weather forecasts to be able to begin operating package delivery services. This is also an element of UTM research.
Competitors abroad are already mobilizing more complex drone operations, including package delivery, and are developing regulations accordingly. In Japan, for example, where AirMap has partnered with Rakuten to provide UTM services, the country has committed to clearing the way for drone deliveries in rural areas in 2018, and in densely populated areas like Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
If the United States continues on its existing timeline, with UTM fully deployed in 2025, America stands to lose out to other countries that are more welcoming to drones. The investment made by the United States in UTM research has inspired others around the world, and the US is now falling behind. We must continue to push aggressive timelines in developing new regulations that make high-scale, complex operations an everyday, routine reality. It’s time to let American companies prove that safe, autonomous, beyond visual line of sight flight is possible, today. UTM demonstrations should be more than a semi-annual affair — we must operationalize these capabilities so the system operates everyday, with real customers benefiting from real use cases. We should empower the states to compete for this business.
This model has worked pretty well for innovation in self-driving cars. The Department of Transportation has created a framework that provides appropriate national harmonization while allowing states to manage the details. Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania and other states work hard to attract innovative self-driving car companies to test on their roads, balancing economic progress with public safety. The DOT’s framework also provides for self-certification of autonomous vehicle systems — conversely, the FAA’s system requires permissions for drones to do just about anything.
The White House and the drone industry are aligned on these principles. We’re making progress towards regulatory reform, accelerating testing and go-to-market timelines, solving for security elements like remote identification and counter-UAS, and converting UTM proof of concept demos into widespread deployments that operate continuously.
Walking out of our meeting Thursday, I believe we have many reasons to be optimistic about the Trump administration’s approach to transportation, including drones. And AirMap looks forward to working diligently alongside our public sector partners to open our skies for business.
More reading on Thursday’s meetings: