The Next Great Innovation Platform is Above Us

The sky isn’t the limit when it comes to innovation above our heads.

This week ushered in some significant news stories in technology and innovation.

Facebook’s Aquila drone successfully completed its inaugural test flight, remaining in the air almost three times longer than expected. The massive high-altitude, solar-powered drone is an experiment in new methods of covering the world in wireless Internet access (which I wrote about in more detail here). In short, Aquila uses laser-based communication systems to communicate to ground relay stations, which then convert the signals into Wifi. Technical challenges remain, and this initial test flight was powered solely by batteries with a stored charge, not by solar panels.

In other drone news, the FAA (despite recently promulgating some less-than-stellar drone regulations) has approved Google’s Project Wing delivery drone system for testing at an as-yet-undetermined FAA testing site. Until the announcement, autonomous and beyond visual line-of-sight testing for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) had been conducted in Canada and overseas — basically, everywhere but in the United States. Now, the government appears to be grudgingly moving towards a recognition that global innovation arbitrage is a real thing, and investment will flow along the path of least regulatory resistance. The FAA may have dragged its feet for many years on UAS regulations, but at long last, it now seems that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel for domestic innovators and entrepreneurs.

These developments herald the potential for new and innovative uses of sub-orbital airspace. But the innovation occurring above our heads is rapidly moving beyond the exosphere, even beyond Earth’s orbit.

Despite what Donald Trump seems to believe,namely that U.S. space policy is “like a third world nation,” the past few days have seen a number of major milestones. Most notably, Moon Express became the first private company to receive regulatory approval to launch a mission outside of Earth’s orbit: to the moon.

What’s more impressive is that the regulatory approval came not from one single federal agency, but from the FAA, State Department, NASA, and the White House. (To give a general sense of just how compelling Moon Express must have been able to make their case to receive inter-departmental and -branch approval so quickly, the FAA took four years just to approve initial rules for the operation of small UAS; and as discussed earlier, they weren’t even all that good.) This is a momentous event in the history of space policy, one on par with, if not superseding, the many recent accomplishments of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But the best may be yet to come.

While SpaceX has experienced its fair share of hiccups over the years, the company is now on the cusp of achieving Musk’s vision of beginning the colonization of Mars — possibly within a decade. Details for his plan, however, are scant and won’t be made available until sometime next month. If it’s anything like his recently unveiled Tesla Master Plan part two, however, bet on it being ambitious.

Though SpaceX has gotten the lion’s share of attention in the commercial space race, the emerging market for private space enterprise is poised to explode. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, for example, are in the process of testing their own brands of reusable rockets in order to make commercial spaceflight and space tourism economically feasible in the next few years. As the commercial space industry continues to explode, it’s important that we remember that a lot can still go wrong. America’s lead in this sector is not guaranteed. The murky regulatory waters of this nascent industry also leaves investors and consumers on tenuous ground, as market uncertainty will continue to be a major impediment to growing investment and innovation. If we can get the rules of the road right, however, the limit on on innovation won’t simply be the sky, but space, the solar system, and beyond.

As we all wait for space tourism and Mars colonies to take to the stars, there’s still much to be done in the airspace above our heads. To begin, the United States needs to do much, much more to foster innovation in the sky — it can begin by lifting the ban on supersonic flight and modernizing the air traffic management system to more adequately account for the many small UAS that are likely to be buzzing about in the next few years. Of course, it shouldn’t stop there. What we need now, more than ever, is to start the process of opening our skies and the stars above to innovation. The airspace directly above our heads can be the next great platform for innovation, but only if we’re willing to let it be.

Originally published at on August 5, 2016.

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