Tyler Suiters                      

Hey everybody. I'm Tyler Suiters for the Consumer Technology Association. We are the owners and the producers of CES, the world's largest, most influential tech event there is. We are here to help you get CES Ready. The show is January 7th through the 10th, 2020 in Las Vegas, our home away from home, and today we're taking a deep dive into the world of drones. A major holiday gift idea and purchase for US consumers several years ago continues to grow not only in consumer popularity, but also in use cases for businesses, and entrepreneurs, and professionals around the country. And that's setting aside the use that emergency responders have for drones in finding people in need, rescuing those who are lost, and also even more everyday tasks like helping work crews who are charged with the repairs and maintenance of high or dangerous structures. Well, these drones can keep those people on the ground while the drones go hundreds and hundreds of feet in the air to do the job.

Tyler Suiters                      

Today, a deep dive conversation with, first of all, the new Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Very cool conversation. He is a former fighter pilot, so has a clear cut view on the potential for drones, but also has a pretty complicated responsibility in what is a rapidly changing US airspace. Also, you may have seen some headlines around this. Drone deliveries are now underway here in the US, products getting to consumers faster and more efficiently than ever. It's a small location but one of the public private programs in that area of Virginia, where this is happening, is taking place around Virginia Tech. We're talking with the director of the program there, not only a pilot, also an aircraft mechanic. Today, a look at drones on CES Tech Talk.

Tyler Suiters                      

Joining us now, it is a pleasure to have Administrator Steve Dixon with us here. A true expert on aviation writ large. Administrator, thank you so much for your time.

Steve Dickson                   

It's great to be with you. Tyler. Thank you for spending the time with us this morning.

Tyler Suiters                      

Certainly. Drones are getting more and more popular by the year. The ownership numbers we track are continuing to climb. That leaves a lot of first time pilots out there, first time users. Education is a big aspect regarding the drone sector and a lot of falls on FAA, correct?

Steve Dickson

Absolutely. And from experience in my family, you know, I'd like to start out with, this is something that hits very close to home to me. My son has his own videography business, and as soon as I was confirmed as Administrator, he had his license renewed so he could have my signature at the bottom of it—

Tyler Suiters                      

And comply with federal law?

Steve Dickson                   

Absolutely. But I've learned a lot from him already. It's a part of aviation, as a commercial pilot and as a former military pilot, that is new for me. But I think it's a reflection of how exciting of a time this is in our business.

Tyler Suiters                      

So basic rules, basic guidelines apply to everyone, whether you're a former pilot, a current licensed pilot, or you're simply opening a box on the holidays that's been under the tree. What are the guidelines you think are just paramount for everyone?

Steve Dickson                   

I think to start with, if you remember that if you're a drone pilot, you're a pilot. There are rules that you've got to follow. And our strategy here in the United States is to integrate drones into the aviation system, not to segregate. And in order to be able to do that, we've got rules that we've got to comply with, and we've got the certification rules that we've got to comply with as well. And so it's very important to know what the rules are, and to follow them. And that's ultimately going to be beneficial for everyone because that's going to allow us to get to a truly integrated system.

Tyler Suiters                      

So with that in mind, what's the best resource for a newly christened pilot, and by that I mean someone who is just opening the box on their first drone, to find out what the rules are? Not the rules that you should follow, but really the rules you must follow when you have a drone in the air in the United States.

Steve Dickson                   

Well, really for a first-time drone pilot, the first thing that you need to do is, again, realize that you're now a pilot flying in the airspace with airplanes. And then right after that, make sure you register your drone with the FAA. It's a quick online process. It costs only $5. You go to faa.gov/uas to register and learn the rules and tips for flying safely. There's a lot of information there. And drone pilots should also be aware of local and state laws about drone operations.

Tyler Suiters                      

So if we could, Administrator, you mentioned earlier your experiences as a pilot. What's your vision for both the drone integration, but also what needs to be done? Because you have a unique firsthand perspective as a pilot in the airspace and you know both the challenges and opportunities involved.

Steve Dickson                   

Sure. It's a great question, and as we say, we want to integrate drones into the system, but it is a challenge because we have a very safe and stable system in the United States. In fact, it's engineered to what we call 10 to the minus ninth safety risk, which means a one in a billion, chance of any kind of a accident or incident. But if you manage new entrants this way, such as drones are, you don't have the kind of innovation, and the kind of progress that you really want to have.

Steve Dickson                   

So we've got to be able to, as we work towards the building blocks of being able to integrate drones in the system, we've got to make sure that we're proceeding very methodically along as we go. And so the FAA has got to be able, as a regulator, to stay ahead of the pace of change, but also take account of the non-safety interests, such as privacy and security, number of other federal, state, and local agencies have a big interest in how we manage the airspace in the United States. And that's our job, to make sure that we take all of that into account as we're developing the rules. So, it may seem like things are not going as quickly as they need to be, but we're trying to develop a system that will work for all stakeholders. And, if you can do it in the United States, you can do it anywhere else in the world.

Tyler Suiters                      

That, balancing safety and innovation at every step, certainly. You mentioned a methodical approach. Any surprises? Anything that has caught you a bit, if not off guard, just something that was unexpected?

Steve Dickson

I wouldn't say necessarily any surprises, but we are making a lot of progress. We call our airspace system the National Airspace System, or the NAS, so I may use that nomenclature here in our conversation. We're developing and delivering new rules so drones can become regular participants in NAS operations, rather than special one offs that require a waiver or an exemption. I mean, that's really what we want to do is make it a normal part of our national airspace ecosystem, if you will. The UAS Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, was launched by Secretary Chao two years ago, and it's moving this integration process forward. The IPP allows for nine state and local and tribal governments across the US to partner with industry to help us develop UAS regulations, policy and guidance through some practical applications.

Steve Dickson                   

Perhaps more importantly, they've become the match that's lighting a creative fire in the industry and the public for what this novel new form of transportation might achieve. Also, the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Pilot Program, or UPP, is making concrete progress towards full UAS integration. We launched that program about three years ago, and that helps us figure out how to do air traffic management for drones. If you think about air traffic controllers controlling piloted airplanes, whether for general aviation, or military aircraft, or commercial aircraft, the UPP program is helping us how to do the same thing with drones. And it's essentially a set of concepts and tools that we're developing with the industry to safely manage dense low altitude drone operations. And it's not as a specific equipment system as we see with manned air traffic control. It'll be complimentary to the existing traffic management system, it won't replace it. And we're also working closely with NASA to do this work. NASA has been a valued partner over the years in terms of being able to help us develop new innovative approaches to being able to solve complex issues like this.

Tyler Suiters                      

So Mr. Administrator, you mentioned the idea of use cases, right? Both potential and actual. What has you excited about that? There's so many opportunities, whether it's, you know, health and wellness, disaster recovery and mitigation. Where is your interest drawn?

Steve Dickson                   

Well, it's interesting. There are use cases throughout our economy and throughout our system. There are also some use cases that apply specifically to aviation that you might not think about. For example, an airline that has to do a lightning strike inspection on an airplane to get it back in service. So, if you're flying around convective weather in the summertime, sometimes you have lightning strikes where you have to have a maintenance technician get up on a lift and look at an airplane, and it can take several hours to get the airplane inspected and repaired and get it back in service. With the ability to be able to do this same kind of activity with a drone, even within the airport airspace, you know, within the hangar area, can cut down that time by several orders of magnitude, and also is better for a workplace safety because we don't have to have people up on a high lift around the tail of an aircraft when they're inspecting it.

Steve Dickson                   

Some other examples we see in the construction industry, cinema, photography. My son has his own videography business. He's using drones quite extensively. Pipeline inspection, agriculture, public safety, energy, surveying, mapping, firefighting. You know, a whole bunch of applications that are really exciting.

Tyler Suiters

Sure. I even think about the more day to day aspects. You know, if you've seen a sweeping shot in a movie by a drone, you remember it, right? That absolutely sticks with you.

Steve Dickson                   

Absolutely. I mean, as we were going through working with the Bahamian authorities after Dorian, a lot of the initial assessment of what we were really seeing with the airports, and the aviation infrastructure, was accomplished through the use of drone technology.

Tyler Suiters

So, when you talk about your audiences, Mr. Administrator, you have one side with, I'll call it traditional aviation, but your pilot community, from which you come, where it's such a rigorous process. So much training goes into it. And now with drones, you have a very consumer centric audience. Is there a clear message, or something that you very much want to say to consumers to make sure they know before they take the skies?

Steve Dickson

Well, I think the most important point is, if you're operating a drone, you are a pilot. So we look at you, from my perspective, and you should look at yourself, as going through the same rigor in terms of your certification as a pilot of an aircraft.

Steve Dickson                   

And so, with that categorization, if you will, there's a lot of responsibility that falls on the individual operators’ shoulders. The margin of safety that we have, and we want to continue to be able to improve our margin of safety, and we want to be able to integrate drones within a very safe, stable system. That's got to be done very thoughtfully. So it is important that we're all aligned, and that everyone understands that we are, as an agency, very heavily invested in the safety and success of all pilots, including pilots of UAS. So you know, an uninformed recreational flyer in the wrong place at the wrong time could ruin everybody's day and really set us back. So we want to make sure that those kinds of things don't happen.

Tyler Suiters                      

Well, what about that first audience I mentioned? Your fellow pilots, so to speak. It seems like their temptations to go outside the rules, whether they know them or not, could even greater consequences, right? When you're talking about safety operations.

Steve Dickson                   

Sure. You know, I think, and this goes for pilots of manned aircraft and unmanned as well. But I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is to not interfere with emergency operations. And again, we saw this a little bit out in The Bahamas. There were a lot of folks who wanted to get out there and wanted to help with some of the provisions and resupply operations, so there were a lot of general aviation aircraft that were kind of in the way of C-17s and larger commercial aircraft that were trying to get in there and provide assistance at scale.

Steve Dickson                   

And so, if you see a something like a helicopter flying to fight a wildfire, as an example that you might see in the drone community, that doesn't mean you can fly your drone. You're not going to be helpful by trying to get involved in that operation. You may force emergency operation to stop, which could cost lives or delay incident response. It's also a good reminder for us to check out NOTAMs. I mean, NOTAMs are notices to airman, they're a big part of the responsibility that any aviator has, equally for drone pilots and for pilots of manned aircraft. And that's kind of the daily rules of the road, of where the threats are, and the areas that we need to avoid, or actions that we need to take to mitigate safety risk or the opportunity to maybe be where we're not supposed to be. So it's, it's important that we're following those rules as well.

Steve Dickson                   

And then finally, if we've got flight restrictions for sporting events or special events, concerts at stadiums and other locations, flying in those areas inappropriately could result in severe fines and even criminal prosecution if it's egregious.

Tyler Suiters                      

Yeah, every college or pro football game has 84 cameras already in place, in and around the stadium. They don't need any help. Not to make light of that, whatsoever. But if the best thing that any pilot can do with a drone in those situations, Mr. Administrator, is knowing the rules and obeying them. A real onus, then, on drone safety awareness week coming up, right? A great way to get that word out, and explain to pilots current and future, what they need to do and how they need to act.

Steve Dickson                   

Absolutely. And thank you for mentioning drone safety awareness week. We are going to really highlight drone safety during the first annual National Drone Safety Awareness Week, which will be November 4th through 10th. And we're partnering with two safety organizations. They're called Know Before You Fly and the UAS Safety Team. And this is a great opportunity for the drone community to help educate the public about drone safety. It will highlight how key sectors are involving the public and spreading awareness about drone safety across the entire National Airspace System. And we also want to engage with students and teachers about using drones in STEM education, and there's a targeted audience for each day of the event. So, I think it'll be a really interesting event for everyone.

Tyler Suiters                      

Administrator Dixon, you are charged with a serious role protecting our airspace, and integration clearly on your priority list as well. A pleasure to talk to you today. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise.

Steve Dickson                   

Oh absolutely. And look forward to, I know we'll have a big presence that this year's CES. We look forward to engaging and continuing the dialogue, and hopefully, I haven't checked my calendar that far out yet, but hopefully I'll be able to appear personally, and look forward to meeting everyone.

Tyler Suiters                      

Yeah, the invitation is outstanding, just to be clear.

Steve Dickson                   

All right, thank you. Pleasure to talk with you.

Tyler Suiters                      

Joining us now from southwestern Virginia, and the campus of Virginia Tech, is Mark Blanks. He is director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. Mark, great to have you with us today. Thank you.

Mark Blanks                      

Thank you for having me on board today.

Tyler Suiters                      

So all of a sudden, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, little corner of southwest Virginia, finds itself as one of the epicenters of drone testing. Give us an update on what y'all have going on right now, and how the heck you got there, to the top of the drone heaps, so to speak.

Mark Blanks                      

So Southwest Virginia has been the hub for unmanned aircraft, or drone activity, for the past several years. And now we're running a FAA designated UAS test site, or drone test site. We're also running a FAA Integration Pilot Program, which is another testing program. And then we have a lot of research going on with NASA and other federal agencies, and that's really come about by just having a real strong support from our university, from the Commonwealth, as well as a lot of talent at this campus to really start putting together the team that could address some of these challenges.

Tyler Suiters                      

So if you could dive into that a bit, Mark. How do you assemble your team? And I know you're, I say relatively new to the Virginia Tech program, but the Tech program really has been on a nationally prominent level for just a few years. How do you find your way to Virginia Tech, and how does this program get to such prominence?

Mark Blanks                      

Yes. I've been here at Virginia tech for about four years, and I came here through a around the country route. I started out in Tennessee and then was recruited out to Kansas State University. Great program, great place in Kansas, but then the mountains were calling back to Virginia, so I came here in 2015. And my background is as an aviation mechanic, as well as a pilot. Having been involved with a lot of different technologies and flight tests. That's on the main aviation side, through getting the drones about 10 years ago now, and really came to Virginia Tech because of the credibility that was already established here. Very well-known name as the start of a new test type program. A lot of great opportunity to build something, and when I moved here, there were five of us on board. I came in as the associate director and moved to director shortly thereafter. And our team now has grown, we probably have 20 to 30 people, depending on how you count us. We're doing all this great work .

Tyler Suiters                      

And Virginia Tech is an FAA designated UAS test site, so you have government stamp of approval. And also, and this happened more recently, a select member of the UAS Integration Pilot Program, and I should say for everyone who's outside the DTT and federal government spectrum, UAS is the acronym I know that FAA prefers for the drone sector, but it's this great relationship. You have a green light, within boundaries, from the federal government to fly. I'd assume given your background, and just rattling off a few cities where you've lived professionally. Telahoma, Tennessee. Manhattan, Kansas. Blacksburg, Virginia. The rural nature has got to be a boon, too, right? To have that kind of geographic space and atmosphere to work and test.

Mark Blanks                      

Yeah, so low population densities are conducive to doing testing. Although, I will say that a lot of our testing now is about moving more into the urban environment, and that actually starts to be a bit of a downside as we look for more populated areas. But, it is a great place to fly here. We have a green light, by the FAA, simply to do testing with appropriate safety cases. It's not just that we can go fly and do anything we want. What we really have in those programs is a very collaborative relationship with the FAA. A two way communication dialogue, support from their side and our side, to build together a safety case for each operation that can be shown to be safe. And that's really what that is about. It's not as much about just going out and flying. It's more about the relationship, and showing how things can be done safely and doing research, as needed, to evaluate that.

Tyler Suiters                      

What are some of those case scenarios, Mark, that you can talk about, and either are in progress or you've made significant progress in maybe wrapping up?

Mark Blanks                      

We've got three big projects right now under our Integration Pilot Program. The first is package delivery where we're working with Wing, which is a sister company of Google. The second is post-event damage assessment. For example, after a disaster working with an insurance company, in this case State Farm. And then the third is doing linear infrastructure inspection on power lines, and to prevent being damaged, as well as to recover from damage to them, and there we're working with Dominion Energy. So a good way to overview, though, what we do. I'll take State Farm as an example. We've been working with State Farm for about three years now. They came to us already flying drones. They were already doing roof inspections one-on-one. They really wanted to go further, and be able to assess larger areas of damage after a major event, and we didn't just have a green light to go fly. We had to build that safety case to get that green light.

Mark Blanks                      

And so we spent the next year and a half doing research, collecting flight test data, and then proving to the FAA all the different risks and how they had been mitigated successfully, to where they got an approval in December of last year to fly anywhere in the country, over people and beyond line of sight, for the purpose of doing damage assessment. That's really what we do with companies. We take them from an idea of how it can benefit their business, through the safety process to get them the approval from the FAA at the end of the day.

Tyler Suiters                      

And probably the highest profile of those partnerships, Mark, it's got to be with Google's Wing project, right? Not too long ago, it just received approval for package delivery, right? Commercial package delivery over general population, beyond line of sight. And it's taking place just a little bit to the north of Blacksburg, in Christiansburg. So I'm sure you're deeply involved and quite curious about how that's progressing.

Mark Blanks                      

We have been working very closely with Wing for a number of years. They did their first test in the US, actually probably the first tests anywhere, of delivering goods to people back in 2016. Here it was a very limited trial. It was not residential, it was actually on a campus facility. But yes, last week they launched the first ever residential drone delivery system where, right now at this time I could drive across town and order a package and have it delivered by drone, currently. That has been launched and that's really based upon a long-term relationship where we have worked with Wing, FAA, and Virginia Tech, and the community especially, all together, talking through not only the safety aspects but also the community aspects of how this will benefit community, and how we might address any concerns that come up. And it took a lot of work to get there.

Tyler Suiters                      

Yes, that's a great point, Mark. How do those conversations with the community go? I'd assume it's a roundabout process of hearing concerns, alleviating or mitigating doubts and unwarranted fears, and then presenting the use case scenarios and the benefits that really affect people's lives, and change them for the better.

Mark Blanks                      

That's a pretty good summary. We really believe that the worst thing that we could do is introduce a new technology, especially one that interacts as closely with the public as drone delivery does, without sharing a lot of information and being very transparent about what's happening. That could create a lot of fear. And so, as we gained the FAA approvals to do the actual operations, we really had to launch a community engagement process because FAA can approve it, but if the community rejects it then we might as well disappear, and will disappear. So we went out into the community, went to festivals, to the mall, to a food truck rodeo, to farmer's markets and other places and had public presences, where people could stop in and ask us questions, and we could respond to them. And quite frankly, the community was just overwhelmingly supportive and positive, and those did have concerns, once we explained the technology and how we would do this, they were very much relieved and very happy to see it coming to a small town in southwest Virginia.

Tyler Suiters                      

Well, as you said earlier, Mark, a rural area is ideal for testing, certainly, just given the low population density. But it seems like that's also representative of a large part of the country, and you can extrapolate that across the world certainly, but where immediate delivery is critical, and drones can enable this, when we're talking about emergency situations, medical supplies that are in immediate need, or even in remote areas where it might be a two and a half hour drive up and over a mountain, or across tough to navigate roads, where drones can get people what they need, when they need it much more quickly and efficiently.

Mark Blanks                      

Absolutely. I will note that when we're doing these deliveries in Christiansburg, it's actually more like suburbia America than it is rural environment. We're delivering two subdivisions that have hundreds and hundreds of homes in them. So, if you look at the amount of suburbia America across the country and they could probably capture some very large percentage portion of the population with exactly what we're doing in Christiansburg. We have done tests in even more rural areas, actually where I live, which is just quite a ways out of town. But the value benefit is beyond just long distance flights. It's also, "I've got a sick kid who feels horrible and I don't want to put him in the car because I got to go get medicine to the store. Now it can come to me in less than 10 minutes." And we've seen that. Deliveries that would take, during a car drive, it would take 20 minutes, we've seen happen in three minutes by aircraft. So it's quite amazing.

Tyler Suiters                      

So when you run through your partners there at Virginia Tech, Mark, and Google seems like an obvious connection, right? An innovative tech company that wants to get into this space, and I would add, is in this space. But then you look at the other two partners, an insurance company that's well known, and then a regional power provider. So the insurance sector, the energy sector, obvious beneficiaries of drones once you delve into the use cases. What's another sector that you want to partnership? A sector that you really see benefits coming from, from the use and understanding and application of drone technology.

Mark Blanks                      

This is one of those things where you could deliberately name an industry and probably find a great use case for drones. They're certainly no cure-all, and then I want to be very clear that they are a new tool in the toolbox. For many, many, many industries, they bring great value. I personally have been very passionate about the surveying and mapping industry because of how many different people it affects, but that industry's actually adopted this technology quite well. So, as far as one that is a new or novel use case, I might need a few more minutes to think about one that I would particularly choose to highlight.

Mark Blanks                      

But we find that there are.... The number of possible benefits are just unbelievable, you can just imagine from the use cases we've heard. Some of the ones that are not as well-known are actually the most valuable ones. And I think we mentioned surveying, land surveying and assessment of property is incredibly easy to do with a drone, and quick. Think about clearing traffic jams, doing an exodus investigation. You know, if you could reduce a crash on I 66 going into DC by 30 minutes, you could save millions of dollars of people's time that might be stuck in that traffic.

Tyler Suiters                      

Yeah, no, that's a great point, and that's someone who knows DC area traffic speaking. From an expert's perspective, Mark, no question. Look, before you roll, I can't believe you haven't been out to CES. What do we need to do to get you out here? Huh?

Mark Blanks                      

Make me a home there. I'll be there. We're going to have a booth there, but Transportation Institute does a lot of automated ground vehicle work, and we might just need to partner with them and see if we can make it out there ourselves. We'd love to see the show.

Tyler Suiters                      

I love it. Mark Blanks is director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. He is a pilot, a mechanic, and clearly a drone enthusiast, and really on the cutting edge of the research that's taking place around the country right now. Mark, pleasure for your time, and let's keep this conversation going next year, all right?

Mark Blanks                      

Alright, sounds great to me. Thanks.

Tyler Suiters                      

All right, awesome conversation about drones, and coming up next time on CES Tech Talk, a cool and emerging and, maybe you'd say, exponential growth potential area. That is gaming and e-sports. Professional leagues are taking off, gamers are growing in numbers, and the technology involved is better than ever, as is the connectivity. All of that is coming up on our next edition of CES Tech Talk. We are here to help you get CES ready, so do yourself, and do us, a favor. Subscribe to the CES Tech Talk podcast, that way you won't miss a single episode as we're prepping you up for CES 2020.

Tyler Suiters                      

Speaking of, the big show is January 7th through the 10th in Las Vegas. The information you need is at ces.tech. That is C-E-S dot T-E-C-H. As always, none of this would be possible without the true superstars of this podcast. Our executive producer, Tina Anthony, and our senior studio engineer, John Lindsey. You all are the best in the business. I'm Tyler Suiters, let's talk tech again soon.

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