In this webinar, Skyward President Mariah Scott joins Skyward Co-Founder & Director of Aviation Network Technology Eric Ringer and Director of Strategy & Operations Matt Fanelli to discuss the state of the drone industry and the latest technology and innovations.
Click here to watch the recording and download the slides, or read the transcript below.
Rebecca Wilson (00:00)
Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our Executive Roundtable webinar. Today our panel of Skyward experts will be discussing regulations, technology, and the innovation that’s shaping the drone industry. Thank you to all of you who submitted questions in advance. We received so many thoughtful queries and we’re going to do our best to get as many of them as possible today.
I’ll start out by introducing myself. I’m Rebecca Wilson and I’m the head of content at Skyward, a Verizon company where I’ve been for going on five years. That makes me the newbie of this group. I’m a history enthusiast, so I’m extra pleased to be moderating this history-making webinar: the first time we’ve gone live on camera. We’re all at the safety of our homes. And I’d like to start out by introducing Mariah Scott, Skyward president.
Mariah Scott (00:57)
Thanks, Rebecca. I’m happy to be doing this. And we were all very mindful of “What does our background look like?” So please don’t judge us too harshly for that. We are still at home.
I’m in Portland, Oregon. I have been with Skyward for about six years, and most of my background is actually in leading enterprise software businesses in regulated markets. So I was really drawn to the drone space. It hit a lot of those criteria for me. I’ve worked at Intel as well as privately held SaaS companies. And I really like helping businesses understand how to use new technology and how to do it safely and efficiently.
I also like flying things, I’m a licensed drone pilot, I’m a licensed paragliding pilot, and I’m working on my private pilot’s license. So I’m learning all about the FAR and the AIM in way more detail than I ever thought that I would.
Rebecca Wilson (01:56)
Thanks, Mariah. Eric Ringer is a Skyward co-founder and the director of our Aviation Technology team.
Eric Ringer (02:04)
Hey Rebecca. Hey everyone. Thanks for joining us. I’ve been with Skyward from the beginning, but I got my start in aviation as a systems engineer for NASA and Sikorsky contractors. I got to contribute to vehicles like the next-generation lunar rover and Sikorsky’s huge CH53K helicopter.
Since joining the drone industry back in 2012, that’s when we started Skyward, I’ve consulted with fortune 200 companies on drone use in multi-billion dollar supply chains and enterprise organizations in almost every vertical seeing widespread commercial drone adoption today. I do have my remote pilot’s license and then I also lead the product and engineering team that’s working on connectivity products in aviation.
Rebecca Wilson (02:53)
Great. And our in-house regulatory expert is Matt Fanelli, Director of Strategy and Operations coming at us from Washington D.C.
Matt Fanelli (03:04)
Good afternoon from the East Coast, everyone. As Rebecca said, I’m Matt Fanelli, our Director of Strategy and Operations here at Skyward. I’ve worn a number of hats in the almost six years that I’ve been with the company, was our first in-house lawyer, and then our general counsel. And from that role as the person who read legal docs all the time, I picked up most of our regulatory interaction as well. And then a few years ago, moved out here to Washington, D.C. to lead our work with FAA on the low altitude authorization and notification capability and our work on remote identification, as well as a number of other industry and regulatory-related activities.
Today I continue leading the team on Skyward that is working with the FAA and other regulatory partners on the regulation side of things. But I also work with our business partnerships and operational side of Skyward. Really happy to be here and help answer some of your questions this morning.
Rebecca Wilson (04:10)
Thanks, Matt. All right, we have a few housekeeping items for our audience. Please feel free to ask questions in the chat and the Q&A boxes. In the chat box, be sure to select “all panelists and attendees” from the blue drop-down menu if you want to share your ideas with everyone.
The rest of the Skyward webinar team is standing by to answer your questions or pass them along to our panelists, time permitting. If we don’t get to your question, don’t worry, we’ll address the top most frequently asked questions we received during the webinar in our follow-up materials.
We’ll also be sending everyone who registered a recording and slides from this presentation, and you’re welcome to share them with colleagues. So we received so many questions in advance about the details of starting up a new drone program, and there’s no way we can cover them all, they can be pretty specific. So we’re going to send out a link to a guide we created just for new programs along with the recording of this presentation.
In the meantime, Mariah, can you explain how Skyward helps our customers start and manage effective drone programs?
Eric Ringer (05:28)
Mariah, I believe you’re muted here.
Mariah Scott (05:32)
Oh my God. I can’t believe I did that. I’m always the person going, “Please take yourself off mute.” Okay, I’m back, I’m here.
So we tend to think about this really in three different phases: crawl, walk, and run. And it’s important to remember that when we started Skyward in 2012, it was illegal to fly drones commercially at all. So when I think back to that, and I think about where we are now, a million registered drones, more than 100,000 licensed commercial pilots, we’ve made a lot of progress. And Skyward all along the way has been providing the management software, tools, the training, and the regulatory guidance that companies need to create and scale and run their drone program. But not everyone is ready to start and go fly the most advanced use cases.
So we take these three phases, and we start with crawl, which is really identifying what is your best use case, looking at the technology that is applicable for that use case, and developing your internal policies and procedures, identifying your subject matter expert, pilots, or employees who are interested in pursuing the technology, and making decisions about what you’ll do in house versus what you might outsource and use a flight services provider for.
In the walk phase, now you’re starting to really identify where you have the greatest ROI and how are you going to train the people who will be flying for you, and what is the level of acceptable risk for your program? And it’s important to really think about the return on investment. I’ve seen a number of programs where we get really excited about what a drone can do and forget that the drone needs to help you save time, save money, keep your employees safer, or generate new revenue, so there has to be an ROI.
When you get to the run part, now you’re starting to scale that out. You’ve developed reputable processes, you got the drone value from the data that you’re collecting, observing, or the monitoring that you’re doing, so you can quantify that. We see that the majority of drone programs see a return on investment in the first year. So when you identify that use case that makes sense for your business, it’s easy to get a return on it. And it’s also something that can help your employees stay safe, and we’ve seen that with a lot of our programs as well.
Eric Ringer (08:03)
I will say that, starting a new program, sometimes even managing an aviation asset for the very first time can be overwhelming for a lot of our customers. And we found that this model really helps keep things manageable while making steady progress. With our product development here at Skyward, we’ve developed products and services specifically to support this crawl, walk, run model for enterprise drone programs, and we’ve seen it pay off.
Mariah Scott (08:36)
Great. I just got a comment here about my audio, is my audio okay?
Rebecca Wilson (08:42)
Yeah. I think you sound good.
Mariah Scott (08:44)
Okay. Sorry, I had a thing in the chat that said maybe my audio wasn’t quite working well. Thank you.
So I want to talk a little bit about how we think about the operational model for drones. And this slide really encompasses both our goals for both our customers, as well as the overall drone industry. And we look at it as a phased approach. So if you think about where the drone industry and where most drone programs are today, we’re down in the segment of operational control and operational efficiency. And operational control is really just getting your program under control. So do you have a culture of safety? Are you standardizing training for your pilots? Do you have good record keeping? Do you have good data management? Do you know who’s flying where, with what asset? Those basics.
Once you get that program in control, then you can start working on efficiency. So how do you focus on saving time and saving money in terms of can you get fast access to controlled airspace? Are you managing your pilots and your drones with a single platform? And can you get insights into the drone flights and the activities so that you can continuously improve on the safety and the efficiency of the program? As we move forward, then we start to look at how do you automate those processes? And how do you scale those processes out? So that eventually we get to the place where one manager can be in her office and be managing and deploying a fleet of drones, one to many, beyond line of sight where we’re able to securely and safely and efficiently manage those drones in a scaled fashion.
Now, that’s a long-term strategy for many of us in the industry and we’re working in R&D and with products that are coming to market and enable the technology and the regulatory and operational expertise to get to that scale view. But that’s really where we’re headed and where we believe we’ll capture the full potential of what this technology can do.
Matt Fanelli (10:52)
That’s all right, Mariah. And this is a good model to think about how the regulators, at least in the U.S. and around the world, have approached drone operations. A lot of the rules and regulations that we’ll talk about here in a little bit, mostly centered around Part 107, they start with that idea of operational control and efficiency. Operational control is the bare bones, the basics for how do you operate safely? And then the tools that Skyward has developed both on the regulations side and professional services side, as well as with our software platforms have helped lead commercial enterprises into that operational efficiency.
But as we have these conversations with companies and with the regulator, I think everyone is trying to see how can we continue to use our advancing technology and the safety culture of drones to push things from that operational efficiency up into operational autonomy and ultimately operational scale.
Mariah Scott (11:53)
Absolutely. So what does the world look like when we get to that operational scale? So this is one of those vision slides that gives a preview of what we think the future could look like. And I know Matt and Eric will go into more detail on some of the technical and the regulatory specifics. But I just want to highlight, the vision here is that we’re building the future of connected aviation for low-altitude, crewed, and remotely piloted aircraft. In our vision, we have a lot of aircraft in the sky, some of them remotely piloted and some of them crewed, but they all can benefit by being connected to these aviation services that makes it safe and efficient to fly.
And we’re partnering with the FAA and with the industry ecosystem to bring that to life. Some of the things I’ll just highlight on this slide, the red circles indicate how we’re harnessing Verizon’s big red network to really provide the secure, reliable connectivity that we need for these types of advanced operations.
In the lower left-hand part you can see command and control, that’s the services that Verizon and Skyward provide today for line of sight operations and for the operations that we have today. Being able to provide that, for example, from a remote teleoperations center and being able to manage the drone traffic, that’s a future vision.
On the other side, you see data and analytics people fly drones to gather great data and to get great insights. So partnering with the data and analytics providers and making it possible to get insight to that data real-time, streaming over the network, as close to possible as real-time as we can manage, that’s also an end goal.
Eric, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the connectivity that we can see on this slide and what we envision there?
Eric Ringer (13:46)
Yeah, I would add that collaboration is a key tenet to flying safely in the National Airspace System. And as we scale the number of aircraft that are in the air, it’s important that we continue to keep them in the loop as we grow our communications technologies, moving from not just voice-to-voice communication and some of the machine-to-machine communication that we have in the commercial aviation sector today, but moving more and more to where we’re including these flying robots into the communications framework.
The low altitude airspace is a great airspace for us to be able to serve with cellular. There are other parts of the airspace where other network communication technologies make sense. But the real key point here is collaboration, being able to talk with these digital aircraft that are a physical manifestation in real life, flying through the air so that we can collaboratively maintain a safe airspace.
We’ve got everything from 4G LTE that we know and love today, to some of the cool advances in 5G technology, which also take advantage of the trends of digitization for us to be able to provide things like virtual network slicing in the future for being able to deliver on concepts like aviation-grade connectivity. And I’ll go into some details on that in a little bit. But those eight currencies of 5G that we’ve talked about before that Verizon CEO, Hans Vestberg, talks about, a lot of those around power efficiency, ability to serve a lot of devices in a small area, bandwidth, ultra-low latency, all of those things are just going to be able to continue to provide more and more advanced use cases for drones.
Rebecca Wilson (15:48)
Thank you, Eric. That is super cool. Let’s take a look at regulations now, they’re continuing to evolve quickly in the U.S. as drone technology gets better and becomes more popular. Matt, could you walk us through the regulations as they stand today and give us a preview of what’s coming up?
Matt Fanelli (16:10)
Absolutely, Rebecca. As nearly everyone on this webinar knows, back in 2016 it was illegal to fly drones commercially, and you needed specific regulatory permission to be able to do so. But the FAA passed the Part 107 rule back in August of 2016. And broadly speaking, that set out the framework for commercial drone operations.
And as you see on this slide here, it falls into three major buckets. What does a pilot have to do to be certified to fly? What are the general airspace rules that the operations must take place under? And then what are the things that are prohibited under the Part 107 regulations but may be waived by the FAA? And these are the kinds of operational limitations that we’ve seen the FAA increasingly grant waivers for. Things like operating your remotely piloted vehicle at night, or operating over other people, or what some consider the unicorn in the industry, operating beyond visual line of sight.
Now, a lot of these things are eking into that operational scale and operational autonomy that we were discussing earlier. But there are some big developments that have happened over the past couple of years and that are happening now on some of those intermediary Universal Traffic Management steps. So we’re seeing things progress quite a bit and a lot of the time when we have these discussions with the FAA, we like to say that the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, better known as LAANC, was one of those first big steps that the FAA took to in allowing the Part 107 kind of operations expand quite considerably. Under LAANC, now you can digitally reserve, digitally request airspace access in places that you weren’t able to fly before. And we know we’ve seen this with our customers, that’s directly led to a lot more aircraft operations in the areas where lots of people are, where the business is and that’s been a really big step forward.
What we’re excited now to see is that the FAA continues that culture of innovating. And while there are definitely some robust processes that the FAA have to go through, as we may have seen in the many years it has taken the FAA to get to the remote identification rule, you’ll see a lot of that work in the proposed rule that came out last December and that the FAA intends to finalize this year. Their timeline for implementing remote identification is something that they want to get out this year, is tied to the operations over people rule that they also proposed last year, and is one of those key building blocks for Universal Traffic Management.
We’re really proud here at Verizon Skyward to participate with the FAA in the FAA’s remote identification implementation cohort. This is a similar program to what we participated with the FAA around LAANC where we and a number of our peers in the industry work side-by-side with the FAA to define how is the system going to work? How do we make it easy for our customers and the general flying public to comply? And what are we going to be able to springboard from remote identification into? And for us, these are things like our connectivity products and the professional services that help a program go from flying within visual line of sight, ultimately to beyond visual line of sight. And remote identification is a really key part of that.
Eric Ringer (20:03)
I’ll also interject here to spring forward off of the concept of collaboration earlier, when I was talking about collaboration, I was talking about being able to talk to the vehicles. And while actually having the communication get to the vehicle is really important, I want to also emphasize what you said, Matt, about Universal Traffic Management and LAANC and Remote ID being some foundational building blocks there. Yes, it’s good to be able to talk to the vehicles, but if you don’t have the infrastructure, the smarts around how you’re collaborating through things like machine-readable airspace access and LAANC, and identification concepts, and Remote ID, then that communication isn’t ultimately that scalable. But these concepts that, Matt, you just introduced on Universal Traffic Management are really important there.
Rebecca Wilson (20:56)
That’s a great point, Eric. There’s a lot to know about connectivity and I’ll include a link to another resource in the follow-up email I mentioned on that. So, Matt, you mentioned that flying beyond visual line of sight or BVLOS, as we say is currently not allowed under Part 107. But we do expect that to change before too long because of things like Remote ID, is that right?
Matt Fanelli (21:27)
That is right. There’s a number of different components that go into a safe and secure program that allows you to fly autonomously beyond visual line of sight. And one of those key components is that operational awareness of what’s around you. And this is where Universal Traffic Management comes in. And it’s one of the reasons why here at Skyward, we’re insisting on using the wrong name for UTM. Many of you in the chat may be correcting me in real-time that it’s actually UAS traffic management under the NASA and FAA framework. But we like to say Universal Traffic Management because in order to get to a system where we’re seeing routine autonomous beyond line of sight flights for things like package delivery, data inspection, and even people movement, you need to be able to coordinate with those other aircraft that are sharing that big blue sky out there. And that means piloted aircraft as well.
I think we’ve seen some of this, if any of you tuned into the Drone Advisory Committee meeting on Wednesday, where our dear Mariah Scott was representing Verizon, the FAA has made mention that they’re looking at a broad, inclusive framework for UTM. And this may include things like the digitization of ADS technology or automatic dependent surveillance broadcast technology to bring in those noncooperative traffic that are out there.
And that’s why this triangle for us helps us simplify all of the many problems that go into setting up a beyond visual line of sight program. There’s a ton of work that our teams have done on the network performance side of things, flight testing, working with connected drones, working with our UAS test center friends to do a number of different demonstrations for what does that communications framework look like? And how can that play in the operational context for a drone flight beyond visual line of sight?
We’ve worked really closely with OEMs and the equipment manufacturers that build the specific modems. There are a lot of things about flying and connecting drones in the sky that it’s very similar to connecting your phone to the LTE network, but there are some things that are different. And our teams have spent a lot of time with those manufacturers to fine tune those products so that when we’re connecting thousands of drones to the network, they’ll be able to perform just as seamlessly as your phone does.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly from the global perspective, is the standards-setting work. There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure that the distributed or federated UTM providers like Skyward are working well with the government systems, that’s your SWIM feeds and the FAA, and other ANSP connections that a USS is going to need to provide to customers in order to develop that operational awareness in a machine-readable, low latency format.
But also how we’re working with all of these other technologies. And that’s where you see that Skyward and Verizon and others are really active in places like 3GPP, which sets the standards for the LTE infrastructure and the protocols that all of our data runs through. And with ASTM, which as many of you know, is where we’ve seen the most work in things like remote identification and DSS, which is one of the underlying principles for UTM.
So there’s a lot of acronyms and some detail in there that I think some of you may be interested in, in fact, I’ve seen some names on there that join us on many of those calls in the webinar. But these are the things that go into it. And we want to highlight that this isn’t an easy problem, this isn’t something that’s just around the corner, this is something that requires a lot of work and a lot of partnership and collaboration to make happen.
Rebecca Wilson (25:31)
Thank you, Matt. So we’ve mentioned Remote ID several times now and you also mentioned that Mariah had a meeting of the Drone Advisory Committee recently. Mariah, can you tell us more about Remote ID and how Skyward is involved?
Mariah Scott (25:59)
So I have a small puppy and my dog was running down the stairs and barking, so I put myself on mute, and then I forgot to take it off. Okay, but I’m really here now.
And I’m talking about Remote ID because actually, this is a foundation for all of that Universal Traffic Management that Matt was talking about. It’s like a digital license plate, and we really need the building block to know who’s flying and where they’re flying. We were happy to be named as a cohort member by the FAA, and for the initial implementation of Remote ID. We’ve actually been working on this for some time last year in cooperation with Wing, we did a live demonstration of some of the underlying technology that will be used for Remote ID.
And you can see in the middle here live flight tracking which is a feature that is available in our software today. And this is a way of demonstrating compliance. So we’re not developing the rules, but we’re really collaborating with the industry and looking for standardized ways that we can meet those rules. And what’s the technology that we can do that.
And we see this as really a foundational aspect for all of that automation in scale and that vision of where we want to go. It starts with knowing who’s flying and having a safe way to do that. I was really encouraged at the Drone Advisory Committee meetings last week to hear the conversation in the context of UTM around the inclusion of general aviation. I know that a number of you who might be in the industry, this has been something that has been out there. How do we ensure that all cooperative traffic can be identified and can be tracked so that we’re focusing any effort on the exceptions? And so seeing the inclusion and the conversation about how do we include other general aviation in the concept of UTM was really encouraging to me. I think it’s an important step in being able to safely move forward with the integration of drones in the national airspace and with moving to beyond line of sight.
Matt, I know there were a number of questions that we got about Remote ID. And I think the FAA said last week that there was something like 57,000 comments to the proposed rule. It’s a staggering number, and it’s great to see so much industry participation, but Matt, do you want to address a couple of those questions we got in the emails prior to the webinar?
Matt Fanelli (28:37)
Sure. And we’ve actually had a couple in the Q&A as well. So Burchie, you hit on the first one that we got and it certainly was one of the ones that came up frequently in the comments to the FAA’s NPRM earlier this year. A lot of people ask us about what does this cost to the operator, and is this going to put small businesses out of the drone ecosystem because of costs? And for us, that answer is no. I think that we address this in our response to the FAA’s notice of proposed rulemaking as well. But like we’ve seen with LAANC, our approach to providing remote identification services at Skyward is that, this is a thing that helps our customers go out and fly, not something that we’re trying to impose exorbitant fees on every operator.
In a lot of the, and we would say 99%, of those use cases today, this will look seamless to an operator in their operational context for how they’re doing things right now. Your ground control station that currently is running on a phone or a tablet, that ground control station generally is already connected to the internet via a cell phone provider like Verizon. And with small software updates, we’ll be able to meet that standard required by ASTM and by the FAA to make sure that those messages, those remote identification messages, are being pushed to the right server, the remote identification service.
And for most people, that’s all that they’re going to need. It’s not additional hardware, it’s not additional cell phone subscriptions. Those aren’t the things that people are going to be paying for. So from our perspective, for most operators, they’re going to be able to meet the rule with just simple software updates. And we think that’s a good thing, we want to see more commercial drone operations.
The other question that we get a lot is, “What about if my operation is in the Rocky Mountains or in the Nevada desert, or out near me where I’m going to go camping in a couple of weeks in the Appalachian mountains. What if I don’t have cell phone coverage, my phone’s out, am I going to be able to comply with remote identification?” And again, the answer is yes. And I think that we support the FAA’s approach to allowing flexibility and reasonable ways to comply. And with a broadcast messaging framework that we worked on in the ASTM standards group as well, you’ll be able to meet the needs of the remote identification rule either through your connected network-based remote identification service, like through Skyward or with the OEM’s updated broadcast version, the version that’s just a messaging over your existing unlicensed connection between your ground control station and the drone. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of options for OEMs and UTM service providers to provide the service on behalf of customers, and we don’t think that this is super burdensome for drone operators.
The last question that we get quite a lot is one about privacy for pilots. If you’ve read the rule closely, you see that in the broadcast only framework, if you’re relying just on your broadcast to identify your drone and identify your operations, you’re also sharing the operator location, which is currently the location of the ground control station. And there’ve been some highly publicized incidents of pilots in the middle of their operations being harassed or accosted by other members of the public. And we certainly don’t condone any violence and are very concerned about, as drone operations scale, these kinds of incidents increasing. And it is an important thing that we need to address as an ecosystem about how we’re going to protect privacy. One of the many reasons why we think that network-based option is a superior option for most operators is that that’s not something that you need to broadcast to the general public when you’re using a network-based Remote ID solution.
And we think that provides balance and choice for drone operators while providing the FAA and the other law enforcement stakeholders that need that ability to regulate our ecosystem for safety that gives them all the tools that they need to.
So I’ll end with just a reminder here too on the timeline. While the FAA is committed to finalizing the remote identification rule this year, and from all reports that we’ve heard, they’re on track to do so, the rule won’t come into effect until 2021 really at the earliest, and more likely for most people in 2022. In the Remote ID cohort, as Mariah mentioned, we’re working with the FAA to implement this early in 2021. And part of that implementation work is that we think that will give some of our customers and the early adopters another arrow in their quiver to prove the safety of their operations in support of things like beyond visual line of sight and operations over people. So that’s one of the reasons why we’re committed to doing the work hand in hand with the FAA and why we think it’s still a good thing for all commercial operators.
Mariah Scott (34:24)
I just want to double tap on a couple of things that Matt said because I know that I’ve heard this from customers and from the industry and also I know sitting on the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee that these are topics. And that’s the topic of questions around what costs that this might in some way be expensive to comply with for Remote ID, and also about privacy. And I can say that in the same way that we view airspace as a public good and want our map and our airspace to be available as a part of a free account, we look at Remote ID in the same kind of way. Remote ID is your license plate, it’s the foundational building block and we want to make that as easy to adopt as possible. And we’re not looking at this as some way to introduce a premium data plan or an additional data plan requirement, that’s not the point. The point is to get everyone safely integrating into the airspace and to make that as easy as we can.
The other piece I wanted to tap on was the privacy notion. There’ve been a lot of conversations about making sure that we both protect the privacy and the security of data and for pilots, that their private information and things like the location where they are. I know there’s been a lot of concern around that and I think that is very well-heard at the Drone Advisory Committee.
Rebecca Wilson (35:54)
All right. Thanks, Mariah. So we’ve mentioned connected drones quite a few times and have given a preview of the exciting future and also a peek into a few of the things that we need to accomplish before we get there. But I’d like to take a step back for a second. Eric, can you tell us why we should have connected drones in the first place?
Eric Ringer (36:22)
Yeah. And let me start off by saying not every single drone needs to be directly connected over cellular. What I’m really talking about is through direct connection to cellular not just on the iPad or the iPhone or the tablet or the phone that Matt was talking about as a means of compliance for Remote ID. I’m talking about direct connectivity on the drone itself to allow people to fly farther. Essentially, to get out of line of sight of or out of range of that 2.4 gigahertz, that localized radio leash that a lot of drone technology uses today to be able to fly farther and then to eventually just completely change the paradigm for how drones are deployed.
I know when a lot of enterprises start deploying drones, the vision that they have immediately is okay, I need to know something, I need to see what my transmission line infrastructure looks like at this point. I can just press this button and the drone will go out and tell me that information. It’s not in reality where we are today, but that is the vision of the future that a lot of us in this industry have that we’re working towards. And to get to that point, you’ve got to be able to address that drone remotely. And you’ve got to know that you can access that drone, tell it to come home, give it new waypoints, see imagery that it’s seeing, all that kind of stuff over the network no matter where it is in the country. And so simply put, putting cellular on the drone, putting a network connection on the drone, just changes the operational paradigm going from one pilot flying one drone to eventually one pilot being able to monitor the deployment of several drones.
Rebecca Wilson (38:19)
All right. So we sometimes hear questions about what wireless service is like in the air. We know what it’s like on the ground in our day-to-day lives, but what is it like up there at altitude? And what are the implications of that for connected drones? I know your team and our aviation development centers have been doing a lot of work figuring that out. What can you tell us?
Eric Ringer (38:47)
Well, we know that we need to make sure that airborne use of cellular is safe and that it doesn’t compromise the services on the ground. So to help answer some of the questions about how cellular works when an airborne device is connected on it, we spent quite a bit of time over the last few years doing network characterization. These are flight tests in urban, suburban, rural areas at altitudes ranging up to 6,000 feet to better understand the specific challenges of delivering services to airborne devices on our network.
Some important things to understand is that, first and foremost, drones are unique on how they operate on the network. They can see a lot of different towers when they get up in the air. You imagine, as I like to and one of the reasons why I love aviation, that feeling that you get when you get up in the air and you start seeing things get smaller and smaller and the world starts to look miniature. If you imagine that while you’re doing that you’re holding the cell phone, and that cell phone is transmitting on the network, all of a sudden, you realize that your sight lines are uninhibited. You’re no longer blocked by trees, or by buildings, or in some cases even by terrain. Not only can you visually see a lot of places, but your phone can see a lot of places.
A drone is basically a flying IoT, internet of things, a version of a cell phone. And it can see a lot of different towers as well, which is both good and bad. It’s good because you have the opportunity to have coverage in a way that you didn’t have when you were on the ground. Maybe you’re in the shadow of some terrain beforehand.
It also can be challenging because when you see a lot of towers, you also have an increase in the potential of interference. So coverage is important, coverage answers the question, can I connect to a network? But interference also can challenge the quality of that service. And so a lot of our network characterization is about answering the questions of “What are some of the metrics that we have to take into consideration when a vehicle is airborne or have devices airborne versus on the ground? How do we look at things like handover from tower to tower, to make sure that cover or that service remains quality?”
And then another thing that’s unique about drones on the network when airborne versus devices on the ground is that drones are data generators. I, as a cell phone user, while I use plenty of data, I mostly consume data. I don’t go around Periscoping or Facetiming all day, producing data up to the network. I’m more looking at Instagram, Twitter, those sorts of things where data is coming to me. And so that way drones are a little bit different.
So now that you understand some of the differences between cellular in the air versus on the ground, you can see why it’s important for us to understand all of this so that we can understanding the mechanics, the physics of all of this and so that we can then work with the industry and with the regulators to set the bar for what we consider to be aviation-grade cellular.
And while it’s important for us to ensure that we’re providing quality service to all users of the network, whether airborne or on the ground, we are the only carrier here in the US that has created a specific airborne connectivity data plan for aviation. I’m pretty proud of that fact. That takes into consideration FAA and FCC regulations. That takes into consideration exactly how a network like Verizon can onboard new devices, new modules that enable drones to connect over the network so that we are able to continue to provide good service to all users of the network. We’re also working with our network engineering teams, performing research and development to optimize, in the future, how drones can connect to the network, add extra security to protect data, and then we’re also working within the confines of some industry standards bodies to take proposed standards to the next level of actual implementation for the enhancement of the support of airborne devices.
So a lot of stuff going on there, we have a specialized data plan, Airborne LTE Operations for drone manufacturers to be able to connect over the network and so the operators then can fly the drones over the network. And then we’re working within standards bodies and with regulators to define airborne connectivity, aviation-grade connectivity, and then working with our network colleagues to continue to advance the network and the ways that we support airborne devices.
So this video that’s coming up here, this is something that I’m pretty proud of our product and engineering teams at Skyward. It’s taking that concept of collaboration in the airspace, extending it from not just our Live Flights feature in Skyward that works off of the GCS used to fly a drone, but also extends it into the cockpit of a helicopter as well. And this is a prototype, let me say, a proof of concept. We’ve got live flights for drones, that’s live in our product today. And then we rigged up a prototype for a proof of concept for connecting the helicopter as well with our partner Southern Company.
So they ran this mission as a rehearsal for responding to tornado damage in Alabama. So their flight operations center is in Atlanta, and they were able to monitor the deployment of their aviation, their mixed aviation fleet remotely over in Alabama for this demonstration. So it’s pretty cool stuff. We’ve also seen them use the Live Flights feature without the helicopter in a live response scenario to tornado damage. So we’ve gotten to see how cellular connectivity is helping keep the lights on and recover from tornado damage.
Rebecca is going to follow up with links to the Verizon blog that showcases some of the work that we’re doing with Southern Company to advance cellular connectivity in aviation operations. And as you can imagine, prototypes with things like this demand for these kinds of advanced projects is pretty high. But we’d love to learn more about your interests and discuss partnership opportunities for 2021 and beyond. So reach out via chat or any of the email channels and we’ll talk things through.
Rebecca Wilson (46:18)
All right. Thank you, Eric. Let’s take a look at the questions submitted by our audience. I see a lot have come in, that is great. This first one is I think for Matt and Mariah. What is the current status of UTM?” And follow up to that, which is interesting, is “What’s the collaboration between different jurisdictions? For example, maybe one case would be in the Portland Metro area where we’re right next to the Vancouver Metro area, which is in a different state. So how are jurisdictions collaborating on applying a unified UTM?”
Mariah Scott (47:08)
Matt, you want to start on that?
Matt Fanelli (47:10)
Sure, happy to. With Universal Traffic Management, we’ve already mentioned that we think we’ve taken some of the first big steps. Getting the regulators here in the US to start thinking about this as a digital airspace solution with LAANC was one of those initial first steps to UTM. And from our perspective, UTM is the future, it’s great, and it’s already here. And everything that we’re working towards as we build out these new regulatory frameworks are going to build on top of those initial building blocks. And remote identification is definitely one of those next building blocks in UTM.
With some of our work on the global scale, I was just elected again as a board member of the Global UTM Association, and we spend a lot of time in our working groups at GUTMA to harmonize those regulations for UTM internationally. And certainly, here in the US, we work from a federalism framework where the FAA is the primary regulator for all of the airspace rules so there’s one point of collaboration here in the US. But that’s not to diminish the role that we see local regulators taking in this ecosystem. And Mariah, I don’t know if you want to touch on some of the conversations that you’ve had with some of those local regulators in some of the areas where they’re playing in this UTM system, too.
Mariah Scott (48:40)
Yeah, thanks. So on the Drone Advisory Committee, there are representatives from state and local entities, as well as from airports and the tower groups. And so we’ve got a lot of participation on the Drone Advisory Committee from multiple levels, all looking at “Okay, how do we harmonize this? And how do we develop both the technical frameworks and the regulatory frameworks that allow for state and local input into what is essentially federal airspace?” And then there are also pilot programs like the IPP program that is specifically focused on integrating state and local regulations with a federal airspace framework to demonstrate how that cooperation can happen.
So I think that this is one of those areas where, today for piloted aviation, there’s state and local input on things like takeoff approaches, and runway approaches, and noise abatement, and times of operation, where helicopters can land in the city, and what those approach paths need to look like. We haven’t established a framework for how piloted aircraft fit within cities and fit within state requirements. And I think we can extend that to deal with the drones. There’s a lot of good work that we can do there but we have to be able to integrate the drones into the airspace, which is why the foundational elements like remote identification and tracking are really important.
Rebecca Wilson (50:23)
I’ve got lots of Remote ID questions coming through, a lot of questions. One is, “Will there be some transponder that will attach to the vehicle? Is there a way for a decentralized enterprise to be certain all vehicles have complied?” Another one is “How will law enforcement be able to identify friendly drones versus potentially threatening drones flown by bad actors? And who is monitoring compliance and enforcement related to Remote ID?”
Matt Fanelli (51:04)
Wow. Four for the price of one, Rebecca. All right, I think we can go through these pretty quickly. So the first one, how are you as an enterprise going to know that all of your operations are complying? That’s one of the tools that we’re really excited about, the tool that Skyward’s building, that’s exactly the kind of centralized operational control that makes sure all of your fleet is operating safely. That’s a perfect use case for one of the additional things that network remote identification has over the broadcast-only version, which of course has its place, but for robust commercial operations, it may not be right for everyone.
The second question in there about “Is there a transponder that needs to attach to the vehicle?” That could be a way, and there are companies out there that we’ve worked with before that have built those kinds of backpacks, as we call them. A lot of them are based on LTE backpacks that attach to the drone. But again, that’s a bandaid solution, and you’re literally sticking a bandaid on a problem that can be built from the ground up. And that’s why we generally prefer the integrated approach, whether it’s with updates to the manufacturer’s firmware for broadcast, or our participation in a network-based remote identification like what Skyward built.
The third question was about “How will law enforcement be able to use Remote ID to distinguish those that are friendly from those that are potentially bad actors?” And there was another question that I answered in the chat that was asking about “Why aren’t we using remote identification for detect and avoid?” And these fall into the same bucket, because that’s not what Remote ID is for. The FAA in its focus on trying to get this system out to solve some of the challenges with the ecosystem, they didn’t want to make it solve all of the problems.
And so that’s why the remote identification systems aren’t a substitute for detect and avoid technologies. And they’re not a substitute for the counter UAS solutions that rely on all sorts of equipment and mitigation techniques to protect things like critical infrastructure and airports. You can’t use Remote ID for all of that, but it’s certainly one thing that helps distinguish ah, look, all of these drones are participating in remote identification, we know the operator, we have a way to identify them, we can separate or filter them out from those that might be threatening drones to critical infrastructure.
And then the last one is related to that: “Who’s monitoring compliance and enforcement?” And this is ultimately the FAA’s responsibility, but they’re working really closely with those that are boots on the ground here. And that’s why there’s been a lot of collaboration between the FAA and those law enforcement operators that are the ones that end up talking to our pilots and the other commercial operators out there when there’s some report of a drone. And those law enforcement operators are going to get detailed instructions about how they can use the Remote ID technology, when they can approach the commercial drone operators, and then what are the procedures when they do.
So, it’s the FAA’s responsibility to make sure that this is really easy for all commercial operators to comply, and that they do comply. And then they provide education and outreach to the law enforcement officers that end up being that first line of outreach either from the public or from the commercial drone operators themselves.
Mariah Scott (54:50)
I would also just say on that, there’s a lot of focus in Remote ID, on being able to identify cooperative traffic. So the more aircraft that are participating, then we know who the cooperative aircraft, we know who the cooperative traffic is. We’ve got a way to say, “Okay, we’ve got access to these common data elements and a way to protect the privacy of the operator so that we can say, yes, this person is licensed to operate in this space.” Then you focus your detect and avoid and some of the counter UAS on only the non-cooperative traffic.
Where the situation we have now, law enforcement and others can’t really tell if you’re licensed to operate in that area or not. And so we’re making that job harder and we’re putting more burden on commercial operators who legitimately are licensed and able to operate in some of these spaces, but can’t demonstrate that with a comprehensive system. So that’s my hope for remote ID is that it helps us really focus on cooperative traffic and make it clear to law enforcement and anyone else that these people are able and licensed to operate here. And then we can focus our attention on the folks who are not.
Rebecca Wilson (56:09)
All right. Thank you, Mariah. We’re almost out of time, you’ll see a poll in front of you, we’d love to know what topics you’d like to see more on in the coming months as we’re planning our webinars through the end of the year. There have been so many great questions that have come in, and they’re still coming in so we just decided just in the background now, that we’ll provide a follow-up blog article answering a lot more of your questions here. We’ll include that in the follow-up email later this week. So we will try to answer as many of those as possible even though we’re out of time.
I’d like to talk about how Skyward helps companies build and scale drone operations, whether they have advanced use cases and a clear vision or they’re just getting started. So whether you’re in the office or the field, our Aviation Management Platform is a single digital system for managing nearly every aspect of your drone program. Our platform features easy to understand airspace intelligence, flight planning, and risk assessment tools, as well as fast access to controlled airspace, and live tracking of active flights as you’ve seen.
Pilots can bring the power of Skyward into the field within InFlight, our mobile app and ground control station, which includes all the same airspace intelligence and flight planning features, and automatically logs flights to Skyward.
Our software is very cool and very useful, but we are a lot more than just software. In addition to our Aviation Management Platform, our Professional Services team is available to help you find success no matter what stage your program is in. We provide consultation and training, and we can even source the right aircraft and accessories for your operations. We also sell the latest equipment and accessories, iPads, batteries to speed up the procurement cycle.
Let us know if you would like to speak to us about any of the following. And unfortunately, we won’t be able to meet you in person at our regularly scheduled events this year, but we will certainly be joining the FAA UAS Symposium in July and August, as well as Commercial UAV Expo in September. So if you’re attending either or both of those events, we hope to connect with you, and feel free to drop us a line and let us know.
All right, we came down to the wire, all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining, everyone. And as we like to say around here, onward, upward, and Skyward.