For several years, we, as an industry, have been trying to solve the numerous hurdles that have prevented our unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to join their manned counterparts in the National Airspace (NAS).

Originally the concept of urban air mobility (UAM) was believed to be different to UAVs because they would have to be piloted in an initial phase of deployment, and also because aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, Airbus and Embraer and small startups alike, thought of these vehicles to be completely different from small unmanned aircraft designed and manufactured for non-passenger missions.

The truth is that leaders in both these industries, UAM and UAV, are realizing that they have more in common than was previously thought and both will have to rely on something other than traditional air traffic control, FAA certification and public perception.

For the sake of facilitating the discussion and helping streamline the argument, let’s discuss the most pressing issues that both UAM and UAV have been asked to address separately:

  1. UTM – Adding non-standard aircraft to the NAS cannot add extra workload to existing ATC facilities. Even in these times of reduced air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, air traffic controllers are close to their human limit to handle traffic and associated stress. Any non-standard aircraft that would like to join the NAS must be independent of voice commands and ATC radar attention.
  2. Certification – Currently the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has extremely high standards for the certification of new manned aircraft and the process is known to be expensive (into the tens of millions of dollars) and time-consuming (multiple years), so only a limited number of companies can afford to enter the market. For UAM and sUAS platforms to be financially viable, the process of certification of autonomous or semi-autonomous aircraft would have to be closer to cars than to conventional manned vehicles, without sacrificing safety.
  3. Non-Traditional Aircraft – For the past 100 years aircraft manufacturers have been designing, manufacturing and certifying aircrafts that have engines, wings (fix or rotating), pilots, traditional oil-derived fuel and use existing infrastructure (airports, navigational aids) to operate in the NAS. Now there are a new breed of aircraft that do not necessarily comply with these conventional precepts. The FAA is a fierce and active promoter of aviation, but they also have a mandate for safety, so it is understandable that they are having a hard time allowing these new vehicles to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and using non-conventional landing/takeoff sites and powering systems.

All these shared challenges have created an environment in which a conversation has begun between UAM and UAV stakeholders in which commonality of purpose has emerged and both industries are now realizing that either they both happen, or none will.

The most recent example of this crossbreed effect is the appointment of Jon Damush as CEO of Iris Automation. Until very recently Jon was Senior Director, New Business Ventures at Boeing NeXt, the now dismantled division at the aircraft manufacturer which focused on the development of a UAM platform.

We had the opportunity to talk with Jon over the phone and ask about his plans for Iris Automation and his experience making the transition.

“Even though my last few years of corporate experience has been with Boeing, obviously a large corporation, my heart has always been in startup,” said Damush enthusiastically. “That’s how I came to Insitu years ago, and that’s why I’m so excited to lead the team at Iris Automation now.”

When asked about the end of Boeing’s efforts to design and build UAMs, Damush pushed back a little.

“It is not necessarily the end of the initiative,” he clarified. “There are many other aspects of UAM and the focus of NeXt was the future of mobility. I don’t think that has changed, and I believe there’s commitment toward designing and building the safest aircraft that deliver the most value to customers, and that includes novel, alternatively powered aircraft for a variety of missions.”

Then the conversation turned to Iris Automation and the reasons that brought him on board.

“Bringing me to lead the company is a recognition that they’re ready to transition to a full-blown aerospace enterprise,” Damush said with excitement. “We’re going to make investments aimed at organic growth and partner with regulators around the world to ensure that our technology is not only the best in the market, but the safest as well. This partnership between industry and regulator will make sure we integrate when it’s safe. And that means iterating on the technology, the concepts of operation and all risk mitigations until we are all satisfied that piloted and unpiloted operations can be combined in national airspace. This is what we have done with the FAA in a number of trials over the last few years, and we will continue to do with them going forward.”

Then we turned the conversation more towards the technological aspects of the Iris Automation product and that got him fired up.

“We have a strong and unique approach to computer vision,” he explained. “Avoiding midair collisions is a process that combines many different risk mitigation approaches. It’s like a stack of slices of Swiss cheese, each layer mitigates different risks and while the possibility of something going through all of the holes is minimal, you still need a bottom layer as the last line of defense. That is where we are focused: providing a technology that gives operators and regulators the peace of mind that we can see and avoid another aircraft. But we have to be careful, and I’d like to bring to the conversation a bit of caution. We should never get infatuated with technology, because it only solves part of the problem. Our challenges are more than simply solving a technological hurdle. We need to have alternatives and work with our partners and the regulator to find the best solution for the specific scenario.”

By bringing Jon Damush in as CEO, Iris Automation has recognized the fact that his expertise in a UAM-focused company are just as relevant and as effective for leading an sUAS organization; both are trying to develop a solution that enables manned and unmanned aircraft to share controlled airspace. With this kind of cross pollination between small and large unmanned aircraft businesses, the sky is the limit.