AINsight: Drowning in Drones?

 - March 14, 2019, 7:53 PM

The current state of industry euphoria that surrounds anything resembling a drone reflects the remarkable level of investment and interest in what is clearly a technology both for the future and for now. 

With some notable exceptions, including companies like Bell, Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer, much of the enthusiasm, talent, intellectual curiosity, and capital that is fueling this aerial revolution is coming from outside the traditional community of aerospace organizations. From a business aviation perspective, what are some of the implications of these initiatives? Is this a revolution, an evolution, or simply a distracting buzz—one that will come and go like an annoying but otherwise harmless swarm of gnats that finds its way to its ultimate fate on a bizjet’s brightly polished leading edge?

While the proposition of squashed bugs might appeal to the alpha personality types that frequent many corners of this industry, much depends on personal perspective. The line maintenance professional tasked with removing that leading edge’s grit and grime will, after applying sustained elbow grease and chemical cleansers, likely have a different perspective on who is best positioned for long-term survival, especially as he/she swats away the remaining clouds of gnat brothers, sisters, cousins, and other relatives and extended families of the dearly departed.

As anyone knows who has tried to control hordes of lowly pests, the best plan of action is surely to identify root causes of the problem and initiate corrective actions to eliminate the nuisance. In the case of the gnat, this includes making moisture and decaying organic matter—the very stuff that scientists seek out in the search for extraterrestrial life—disappear. Swarms of gnats, highly evolved over millions of years, are actually signs of life and arguably provide a glimpse into how we might think about the evolution of our own industry into the future.

The current excitement surrounding urban air mobility will, in our estimation, not be going away anytime soon. There is much at stake, and fascinating opportunities exist for personal mobility that could literally transform the way people live, move, work, and experience life. While we may have all been born a little too soon to even grasp what some of this revolution will bring, it is a future that business and general aviation enthusiasts and practitioners are uniquely positioned to seize.

But what about the obstacles? How much is this going to cost? How will the airspace be managed to avoid traffic conflicts, air accidents, and casualties? Who is going to provide the capital, insurance, and infrastructure? These are more than important questions, especially when the lessons of history confirm that there will be an impressive number of setbacks and failures along the path to operationalizing such a future. 

The good news is that, while some see walls and barriers to progress, others see opportunities that are nothing more than the latest multi-variable puzzle for their Mensa minds. They see a future that has more in common with the lifestyles of George Jetson (and Jane, his wife) than anything we can realistically experience today.

Several years ago, I had the distinct honor to spend a day in the presence of Clayton Christensen, the esteemed Harvard Business School professor of business management. He had recently authored a book that was only just beginning to be recognized for what it was: ground-breaking and paradigm-cracking research on how successful companies and even entire industries are disrupted by innovators and their inventions, many of which had been broadly dismissed by incumbents as irrelevant, naïve, and unsophisticated. One of Christensen’s primary theses was that these disruptive technologies typically upset industries by coming from “below,” by asking simple yet provocative questions about what people need, and by using simple, low-cost tools, materials, and even production methods. 

Disruptions do not typically target existing customers (think ultra-high-net-worth individuals who can afford a $20 million+ business jet), so are rarely if ever considered to be of concern or consequence. Disruptive innovations (think urban air mobility—or UAM—vehicles that safely, quickly, and very cost-effectively transport small numbers of individuals over inter-city distances) are aimed at different customers, those who cannot project themselves into the left seat or captain’s chair of a business aircraft, which are seen as far too expensive and complicated to operate.

Participating at a recent industry conference in Brussels, and amongst colleagues and friends to discuss ways and means to expand the reach and effectiveness of business aviation in Europe, it occurred to me that it is easy to dismiss innovations like UAMs as the latest (doomed) promise of a technology to darken the skies, something akin to very light jets (VLJs) that emerged on the scene in the last 15 to 20 years. Many investors who lost their shirts (and probably their pants and shoes, among others sets of clothing) will surely be among the skeptics that cannot and/or will not participate in creating a UAM future. 

Past failures, however, are surely not impediments to forward progress, as initial successes are already being realized in the areas of small package transportation of medicines, food, and other life-sustaining items in far off corners of the world, as well as in our own neighborhoods. Aerial monitoring using high-fidelity cameras mounted to drones is transforming the ways organizations, communities, and individuals manage resources, from communication towers to transmission lines and pipelines, from farmers’ fields and livestock to coastal and border management. 

So how does this all impact business aviation? Why is this something important? I believe that we are on the verge of a revolution in how we will move things and people through the air. It will take time and capital, and there will be catastrophic setbacks. The vehicles that will be deployed will not at first displace B&GA aircraft, especially those of fixed-wing design. Transportation of people will initially be focused on very short-haul missions, probably between known points of demand on scheduled intra-urban networks of 50 miles or less.

Coalitions of local supporters will grow in line with technology improvements as success after success proves their worth to stakeholders and to Doubting Thomas, who legitimately wants to see tangible progress before settling into that seat. 

While the transformation of the business and general aviation industry will be continual—from today’s environment serving few and mostly highly privileged customers to a future with a much broader base of users—it is something we should all be thinking about and working toward. What might seem like an annoying buzz of gnats today might actually be a musical precursor to new, safer, and exponentially more affordable business and general aviation aircraft of tomorrow.