“To use the metaphor of the internet, UTM is at the stage where personal modems have just gone on the market” – Interview with Skyward’s Jonathan Evans

Could you give any update on how the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability    (LAANC) programme is progressing – challenges, milestones, number of participants?

LAANC is the place where we have boots on the ground right now. That is the first place where we, as an industry consortium, have worked with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hand-in-glove to define airspace in terms of software and to manage airspace to the FAA’s authority within that software. This is the first prototype of a live system of what many think of as UTM.

I believe UTM is a concept a lot like the Internet is a concept. And you can’t really point to the exact time when the Internet started, but you can see moments of inception and historical thresholds. I think that’s what we’re doing here with the software-defined airspaces and network management of those airspaces.

So LAANC is that first call on the Internet. It’s that first handshake between airspace regulators and the industry’s ability to provide robust infrastructure that this new generation of aircraft requires. Drones require network management, inherently. And to develop that infrastructure we need a regulated industrial effort.

When you say “regulated industrial effort” you are talking about two concepts: the concept of the regulator and the concept of industry. They both want the same thing but they’re coming at it from very different backgrounds, with many cultural differences.

The aviation industry that we all know and love is just heavily regulated technology. Regulatory progress is being made here and led by some really enlightened minds from the government agencies. The real buzzwords on the regulatory side these days are “performance-based standards” and that is fundamentally what we need to regulate. We all have the same goals – to reach the current aviation standards of safety and then improve on them. And I think in the Information Age as the regulators move into that inside-out method of performance-based standards then you can allow industry to really iterate quite rapidly with the state-of-the-art solutions to meet those standards.

Have you learnt anything that you can share with us from the LAANC programme, in terms of demand, complexity, technology and understanding how it’s going to work? Have you got any early outputs from that?

I think the most important lesson is that without having to pass a new law in Congress, without having to engage in a lengthy discussion about changing public policy surrounding airspace, the FAA was able to look at its current rule system and collaborate with industry to provide the regulatory basis for a state-of-the-art transport prototype.

And that’s a set of cloud-based software platforms. We have three that are live – an eclectic industrial group, working on interoperability standards to provide the infrastructure while the FAA provides the regulatory basis for it.

I think the lesson is: we should continue along these lines. Regulators need to uphold the basic social contract for protecting citizens while providing a robust conduit to international commerce. In a UTM world, we see that social contract codified in software and the entire aviation system becomes more robust and efficient as a result.

In terms of funding an operational UTM system, is there anything that we’ve learnt from LAANC, or anything else that you’re doing, that gives you some kind of insight into how that’s going to happen?

It’s kind of like asking ‘How would I fund the Internet in 1991?’… LAANC is an industrial infrastructure scaffold built in public/private partnership. This is the scaffold, and others like it to come upon which an economy grows and an ecosystem of market players exchanges value. It funds itself. I see it as a rather organic, market-based system.

Yes, but UTM is not the Internet – it’s an air traffic management system, and that is a little different.

If you look at LAANC it’s not the Internet. It already has a regulated infrastructure that it sits upon.  I totally agree with that. But when you look again at those structures that we’re working with and you look at how we built LAANC, we didn’t raise a dollar from the government. There were 12 industrial players willing to invest in the inherent value of this public infrastructure. Because there’s clear value in building an ecosystem. That’s classic market dynamics right there.

It wasn’t a huge level of investment for us to do the infrastructure it took. It certainly wasn’t anything like the order of ATC. And the FAA’s resources were already in existence. So it was a relatively light industrial lift that produced the kind of software-based infrastructure we’d expect in the aviation system.

I think that you’re going to see lots of value exchange in the UTM – what you refer to as air traffic management is really just the plumbing, only the TCP/IP, SMTP, IMAP servers. They’re the foundation of the Internet. Once you have the basic programmatic rules of the road installed then you get to the market layers that start to build upon that basic infrastructure, and you’ll see all kinds of programmatic, commercial air fleet management services emerge, what are really networked services for aerial robots… and drones will become a lot like kinetic apps..

I could see Instagram, for example, tapping into a UTM architecture with their APIs (application programmable interfaces) and saying “here are the best points in space, at the best times to take a picture of this, you know, statue, at this angle of light”. That’s also a UTM architecture.

So where does that leave a company like Skyward? Presumably, this is a very fast moving market with a lot of people writing very clever apps – which makes it quite difficult to plan for the future, to see where you’re going to be in five years.

We have a solid and growing enterprise customer base that uses our software today to manage the nation’s fleets. There are networks of Phantoms and Mavics and other vehicles being taken off utility trucks and flown for tower inspections and flown off the news van for a media shot. We have developed the software-based system for managing those fleets and that’s where we got our traction as a company.

We’re taking fleet management to the sky and we’re connecting drones to the network and that, to me, is the industrial layer that is UTM.

You’ve described a very clear way of UTM developing in the USA but I think in Europe it will be different – more programmatic, with tight deadlines for standards and regulatory approvals. Do you think in the USA it will be a more market-driven kind of development – as people write the apps, as people require the connections, the UTM system will evolve?

It’s a tough one to see how that evolution will take place. As the president of GUTMA (the Global UTM Association) I see many different regulated aviation markets and industrial programmes.  And you’re right, there’s nuance, but I think that this plays out almost everywhere as the kind of regulated industrial handshake that I have been describing as an example here in the US in LAANC. I see that playing out in U-space in Europe as well, with maybe a slightly different kind recursive architecture.

I start with the notion of a kind of Internet in the sky, with UTM a lot like a DNS server for geo-spaces. A UTM server is just a place where you can publish and subscribe to information about commonly defined geo-spaces. If you place a sort of ‘super server’ that is the government in this networked system of information exchange about the airspace, you can provide unique privileges to users on that system that only the government provide, like access to controlled airspace. Whether that special server is an ANSP in Europe built to a U-Space architecture or it’s LAANC, it’s the same kind of software-based system of information exchange and the technology needs to be globally interoperable to fit into every regulatory context.

Today, that special server, in this recursive, open, organic architecture I’m describing, is the FAA’s LAANC API. It’s that special server node that the 12 of us can hit now. And we can now build recursive UTM architecture with everyone in the market around us talking to each other – but whenever we want to get into controlled airspace we have to subscribe to the super-server, the FAA.

And that’s sort of the way it works in Europe, too, except that server will most likely be owned by an ANSP. If I’m going to make one speculation I think it’s that the place where we sit in the industrial layer of LAANC will probably have one more layer of ANSP involvement in Europe. But essentially they are the same systems.

Do we have a clear view of what happens after LAANC?

The air traffic organisation needs to localise Part 107 – and that’s really what the first effort of LAANC is about. It’s saying:“ Hey, air traffic control! Can you clear some ‘Part 107-like’ airspace underneath your regular traffic control zones?”

And that’s what LAANC is. We can make them aware that there’s drone activity going on in their airspace and we can start at a local level to build on our understanding of what is happening in those zones. The granularity of LAANC is a grid of large volumes, cubes that are the size of multiple football fields. Those four-dimensional cubes, when you include the time you plan to be in a specified airspace, are just going to get smaller and smaller, and more defined as we build out local understanding of the airspace.

Then we have to really reach out from the federal government level to the states and local authorities and try to bridge something there. LAANC can be the technological conduit to that policy bridge.

Does that mean a city or a state may want to run its own LAANC programme in parallel with the federal government but with slightly different local zoning laws, different local regulations?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s as separated as they way you describe. It’s FAA saying to states and local authorities – “It’s our airspace and it’s going to continue to be federal airspace. There are lots of good reasons to support the federal pre-emption of the airspace, and we’re going to continue to exert that authority, but we’re very interested in your local zoning issues. We’re very interested in whether you have prisons and whether you have nuclear power plants. We’re very interested in your local concerns, and we will listen to them, and we’ll join you in this software-defined forum of industrial partners. Get in contact with one of our LAANC partners and we’ll talk to you there.”

So will this also be a forum for local security officers, police, Department of Homeland Security, air traffic control, small airports? There will be a forum for people to come together and define what the local rules, are?

I think the forum you describe already exists. There are plenty of places for these people to engage and have a robust debate about what the social contract evolves to become, that living question for every community of what localisation really means. In LAANC the industrial partners really just want to be the software that defines the answer, however that shapes up. We will go from big cubes to smaller, more precisely defined cubes in the software that are inherently more localized

And as you go to smaller cubes, you start to be able to do more as a drone operator.

That’s right. You get more airspace. And we’re slowly working towards chipping away at the huge areas of prohibitions – over the cities and the denser airspaces, which is great. That granularity is about access to airspace. And that’s who funds it. It’s a market demand for being there. Bridge inspections that are already paid for that are done more efficiently with a drone. It’s every news shot. It’s every time that blood is delivered to a hospital network. All of those use cases are ultimately the economic drivers that underpin this industrial development.

I’m trying to get a global view of how we are going to tie everything together. If you want a particular service, if you want to fly over a city, then you’ve got to pay for that in some way. But if you want to fly from one end of a field to another, you shouldn’t have to pay. It’s almost like you’re producing multiple types of UTM systems, some funded, some not. Every single operation will need its unique UTM system – from flying a simple drone in a field, to a long-range cargo drone flying over multiple cities, you’re going to have completely different ways of managing that flight – or will you just plug in to the apps that are available along the way?

You’re absolutely right that underpinning this is the fact that somebody has to pay for more and more robust infrastructure. And the demand for the kind of infrastructure you just described at that extreme of heavy cargo delivery by drone would definitely need to have serious value behind it for the technology to exist in a market-based system.

As soon as you have a demand to fly that cargo vessel over that area, at that size, then, there’s going to be market demand forces to deliver infrastructure to underpin whatever it takes to support it crossing the city.

But I want to bring you back to LAANC to understand better how this is all unfolding. In that hand-in-glove work with the FAA we were given regulatory authority to grant access to more airspace than was available the day before LAANC was implemented, but there was no stipulation put on us in the industry as to whether we could charge for that new capability to access the airspace or not. And I can tell you there was a reflexive, philosophical discussion about this at Skyward – on the one hand the industrial side of the equation and on the other a kind of philosophical position that access to airspace is inherently free and democratic, and I guess I just can’t shake that as a guy who’s had a pilot’s licence since I was 19 and has built a career on that egalitarian notion.

So we made the decision to stay true to that principle and provide a basic free layer to our software and its ability to access controlled airspace through LAANC. Our services will always be fundamentally underpinned by free access because of that choice, but we’ll also have service models upon which we will charge our rents, as every good industrial player does in the economy.

So if you need special access or special authorisation or you need to do something which is beyond pretty basic, then there will be a charge for it?

In the ATM world the government sits at the gates. Some parts of the system access is free but then you have to have some sort of a social contract debate around where you want put the government tolls in the system. I don’t think they’re going to have any trouble finding similar gateways in this next generation of aviation systems. I have a feeling that the super UTM server I described, that the government owns, will also have, toll systems on API calls.

I prefer to stay out of the social contract debates about which way these things should go but I can see that the fabric by which it all gets played out in the Information Age is software. We define these things in software. Ultimately, the transit of that software-defined airspace you described, is an exchange of value and that value is appropriated to the folks that allowed for that passage.

Where do you see the first operational commercial UTM services coming into service?

LAANC is definitely one. This is an industrial grade, commercial UTM service that is accessing software definitions to give you more airspace. Poland has an operational UTM system in active use right now. I really love what I see coming out of Switzerland, is a very progressive regulator with a productive ANSP relationship, and they seem to get the UTM concept and where they play in this information architecture as government. They have already demonstrated the interoperability of commercial UTM systems in a regulated environment.

I’m also really impressed with what they’re doing in Singapore, in terms of the actual infrastructure. It’s an island city that really doesn’t have the rural airspaces that we get to play with in Australia and the USA. Japan is extremely interesting in terms of their industrial sector. They’re so tightly tied to the government; their R&D, NASA-type efforts are taking place within the JAXA programme and the industrial ecosystem they’ve developed around that is really fascinating. They basically started from a UTM perspective. They don’t think about drones being flown from the ground with joysticks – they’ve started with them being operated via LTE networks.

As part of Verizon, we can drive and lead that vision of LTE-connected networks of drones in the USA and soon around the world. My belief is that you take the software definitions and you ubiquitously connect them to the Internet then you really do have integrated, flowing, paths of aerial robots operating in our cities, providing just orders of magnitude more  value and service than our world’s airspace’s provide us today.

How different is the industry going to look in two years’ time?

If I go back to my Internet metaphor we’re probably at about where Apple has happened. There’s this great personal computer revolution that’s taken place, and the direct metaphor here is really the Phantom. We’ve really seen democratised aviation for the first time take place, I mean, millions of copies. So now maybe we’re in that era of the next generation where other sets of PCs that are outside of the Apple ecosystem are starting to appear. And we’re right at that moment where there’s this other folder on your desktop called the Internet and it’s just opening to more information on other computers. And really, it’s not much. It’s text files. But it’s accessing another new folder that isn’t on your own computer. And that’s a really important threshold moment. And that’s what you see right now, in the very beginnings of the drone industry taking shape in the first beyond line-of-sight use cases. That first trickle of the Internet.

Because beyond line-of-sight is the metaphor. It’s these robots moving like nodes in space, much like packets of information move in the information space. And you need that regulatory threshold, that technological threshold crossed to really become this broadband-based aerial Internet that I’m envisioning.

What you’ll see in the next two years is an establishment of use-cases connected beyond line-of-sight, doing real things, like networking hospital medical deliveries, drone-in-a-box inspections on construction sites and at the foot of cell phone towers. Those things will happen in the next two years, and it will be done at an industrial scale that’s still nascent.

What’s it going to be like in five years?

Where does that path of intelligence lead, in other words? To continue the analogy, we increase the bandwidth – we get to broadband. And as we get to an infrastructure that looks a lot more like broadband in the sky, then you’ve got the robustness that can support the cargo drones that can carry thousands of kilograms of cargo, or wherever the optimised path is in the logistics scheme – placing market demands across points in space.

And as we open up that broadband, the infinite amount of routes become open and the perfectly elastic equation of trade becomes open. You can say, the value of moving this much weight from A to B in this time frame is X. And if there is enough demand for that value, there will be supply of technology. That is the nature of markets.

Can we talk about global enablers and GUTMA’s role in enabling UTM systems around the world?

We have an opportunity for developing now the technical standards that are the basic foundations and plumbing of this infrastructure, the basic interoperability standards, the TCP/IPs, IMAPs, the SMTPs. These are the things that allow the global Internet to work.

GUTMA is working to answer ICAO’s call for harmonising some of the basic building blocks of this infrastructure, and that’s identifying who is operating the drone, for example, and whether it’s a human being, an individual or a corporation. What is the aircraft? How is it uniquely identified? GUTMA is happy to provide a digital licence plate to a global standard. We’re working on that in one of our working groups.

That will mean I can take my commercially registered Mavic, take some shots here in the USA as a Part 107-rated pilot, then throw it in my backpack and take it to Switzerland and be a commercially registered pilot there as well. It’s just a matter of those two countries’ UTM servers authenticating to each other through a global registrar system and both recognizing me, the same human database object, as a commercial pilot in their respective countries

I think this year and the next will present a historical opportunity to get that right.

There are still many countries where flying a drone will get you locked up; the world is dividing into people who are embracing this technology and those who are scared of it.

That’s not my narrative. I tend to see forums of agreement more than disagreement. I see regulators around the world doing good, innovative, democratic, intelligent work right now. They live in the Information Age; they roll out of bed and check their iPhones as well. We are coming together along the path of an inevitable, intelligent technological infrastructure, and I think it’s a joy for us who get to participate in forming it.

Jonathan Evans is Co-President of Skyward, A Verizon company – an FAA-Approved LAANC Airspace Vendor – and President of the Board of the Global UTM Association

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