Ben Marcus is Co-Founder and Managing Partner at UP Partners and Chairman of UTM service provider AirMap
The last few months have seen a huge amount of upheaval at AirMap – the COVID-19 pandemic has hit, jobs have been lost, the CEO has departed and the Santa Monica office has been destroyed by a fire. How’s the company coping?
I’m extraordinarily proud of the AirMap team. We’ve gone through a number of changes. The vast majority of the team remains the same and they have demonstrated extraordinary resilience, creativity and commitment to our cause. And our customers have been fantastic. We’re seeing tremendous growth in industrial applications for drones and use of our platform reached an all-time high in June. We have great customers: Rakuten Mobile in Japan, for example, is building up a new mobile network and using AirMap to conduct their pre- and post-construction surveys for their cell phone towers. We have great customers like Andres Construction in Dallas, Texas, using drones and AirMap to add better visibility into all of their construction projects.
So things are progressing despite the crisis. Certainly the last four months have not been easy for us, or for anybody. The disruption in the economy has dealt a major blow to the aviation industry and it’s forced a lot of companies, including us, to wake up to this new reality.
We were fortunate enough to raise additional capital just before the pandemic really started to mushroom. We wanted to make sure that we had the backing that we needed for our long-term success and the success of our customers and our people. We did have to make the difficult decision to reduce our staff and to cut some non-core initiatives. While it was definitely hard to say goodbye to some of our team members, I think our continued strength and growth is a testament to our team and to our ongoing financial support.
Are all the restructuring moves now over?
I continue to be baffled by how companies can make money out of UTM – where will it come from?
We see tremendous opportunities for growth in industrial applications for drones and there is an accelerating global imperative for automating industrial processes across multiple industries. Any company that has physical assets they need to inspect can do that with drones. And we’re going to continue to work hard to make sure those enterprises have everything they need from us to enable highly effective, automated drone operations, from mission planning to data flow, storage, and processing. We’ve expanded beyond what has traditionally been thought of as UTM.
We also see a lot of interest also from the defence sector—AirMap was recently awarded a contract by the US Department of Defense to provide a system that enables short-range reconnaissance and situational awareness. We’re providing the same sorts of capabilities to the DoD that we’re providing to industrial enterprises in terms of mission planning, data analytics and UTM services. This is really all about reducing risk to military personnel and helping them to conduct safe operations.
Those are the two big growth areas that we see over the next 12 to 18 months and they are the main focus for us.
So where do you see the market for supporting commercial operators – especially in generating revenues from supporting beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations via UTM systems. Is this a major revenue generator or will most of your revenue come from industrial applications?
It depends on the timeframe. Regulations have been progressing more slowly than we’d hoped and so the timeline to really wide-scale, true BVLOS that requires UTM for safe and efficient navigation is being stretched out. I think ultimately if we’re talking 10+ years into the future to make BVLOS drone flights part of everyday life. That remains our long-term vision and that’s where we think long-term revenues will come from. Over the relative short term the regulations are not progressing enough for that to be the main source of revenue.
What are the key regulations that will be needed to unlock this market?
There is some encouraging progress in some parts of the world. We are seeing civil aviation authorities (CAAs) start to allow BVLOS in Africa, for instance. But in most of the developed world, regulators generally require more conventional detect-and-avoid systems for BVLOS and these simply do not scale. So if you’re required to put detect-and-avoid sensors on board the aircraft, or you’re required to have ground-based detect-and-avoid, the system doesn’t scale. So we’ve got to get CAAs around the table and work out how UTM systems can provide better risk management than more conventional systems. Once that’s done then BVLOS will scale.
I think it is important that people working in CAAs have the right mindset. They should want to see progress. It takes political leadership at the elected level for CAAs to be unlocked to do what they know is right for this industry. I would encourage our political leaders to recognise that the opportunity with drones and advanced aerial mobility can have major positive impacts on their societies and economies.
Do we adapt what we have in place with the Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) procedure will this require an entirely new approach?
I think SORA is a great start. We’ve done a lot of work in automating the risk assessment process and will continue to do that and to improve how operators can leverage SORA in a more dynamic, real-time way. So yes, that’s a good starting point. More authorities around the world need to adopt SORA and need to understand that UTM is a sufficiently robust technology to support more complex low-level airspace operations.
Do you see mobile network operators (MNOs) as competitors, partners, or both?
We see them as partners in two main ways. In the area of UTM, payload data from drones is dependent on good connectivity to be useful and these are services that ride on the mobile network. Drones are also critical for inspections during 5G roll-out, so in this regard mobile network operators are customers. There’s a lot of synergy between the two industries and we want drone operators to have the necessary connectivity to conduct autonomous missions and update data directly to the cloud during flight.
MNOs will be able to provide connection services within the drone ecosystem in three ways – command and control, payload data download, and UTM. What does this mean for partnerships with UTM service providers?
I think the partnership and business relationships are yet to be exactly determined. MNOs are really good at providing reliable connectivity. They don’t typically excel at providing applications and the three things that you’ve mentioned are applications. Command and control capability—which I would argue extends from mission planning, ground control and observing the airspace situational awareness, along with autopilot capabilities—that’s one application. The UTM application and payload processing of data are not areas in which MNOs excel. So I think that’s a partnership of opportunity, not a competitive issue.
The market is changing all the time, new major disruptions taking place every six months. How difficult is to adapt to these short-term events while retaining a long term vision?
I think we have an advantage—as a start-up we are quite nimble and light on our feet. We hire teams that are flexible and AirMap chose to take a global perspective from the start. We have teammates that live and work all around the world and that allows us focus on opportunities as they arise. We stay true to our purpose, we stay true to our culture, and we work together as a team to work out what the right thing to do for our customers is at any given time.
What can we expect to see from AirMap over the next few months?
We’re focused on enabling industrial automation with drones and on fulfilling the needs of the defence sector, so we’re listening very closely to those customers. We’re developing products in response to their needs and I think our customers will see fantastic enhancements to the solutions that they already enjoy.
How do you see the UTM market developing over the next two years, particularly in the USA?
I’m really hopeful that the remote identification timeline remains as planned. I think that the framework set up by the FAA is generally a good one. We need both network and broadcast Remote ID.
Provided that the Remote ID timeline remains as planned, in two years from now I think our customers will be able to leverage our services to comply with the remote identification requirement. I think that means operators will be able to fly drones routinely over people and we will start to see more BVLOS operations.
I’m not sure exactly how the regulation is going to shape up around BVLOS—there are a number of vehicle programmes that are undergoing type certification right now but I think it remains to be seen exactly when BVLOS will be operationally widespread. But I do think that the FAA’s recent revision to its UTM concept of operations is a great step forward in paving the way for what UTM will be able to do.
So you’re not advocating for any one particular technology for Remote ID?
The one technology I advocate for is UTM. UTM is critical for scaling drone flights.
How important is it that industry develops the right standards for advancing UTM and more complex drone operations?
I think standards are really important and AirMap has made a tremendous investment in working with standards bodies in the US and Europe. We’ve seen great progress, for example, with the inter -UTM service supplier (USS) standard that ASTM International has promulgated as the open-source protocol for data exchange between USS companies that’s now being managed by the Linux Foundation. I think that’s incredibly important. Essentially any standard that will be accepted by a CAA that will allow high-scale operations I think is a valuable standard. There’s a pretty consistent dialogue between the industry and regulators to determine which standards bodies are going to be acceptable and which standards will be important for regulators. Ultimately the reason to have these standards is to allow industry to progress at a faster pace with the consent of the regulators.
And we now have GUTMA working with MNOs on standards that will bring together mobile telecommunications and aviation.
I think GUTMA has done a good job in this area by channelling the voices of the UTM industry in a positive and consistent way, which means they’re able to interface with other standards groups like 3GPP and regulators. I’m very supportive of the work that GUTMA is doing to consolidate UTM industry voices and help accelerate the future for all of us. I’m also very proud of our colleagues, including AirMap’s Sebastian Babiarz, who is co-president of GUTMA.
There’s a lot of money going into advanced aerial mobility at the moment.
We think it’s a very important market for us in the longer term. My co-founder Greg McNeal and I started AirMap in 2014 because we wanted to build up a UAS ecosystem which we knew would need a new type of traffic management system. This remains our long-term vision, and we’re excited to be accelerating our growth in the industrial and defence segments over the next 12 to 18 months but with the long-term view of being able to serve our customers with an effective air traffic management system.