COVID-19 has presented operational challenges for the majority of commercial businesses. Whether you have been faced with operating remotely, working with a reduced workforce, or dealing with interruptions in your supply chain, there has been unavoidable disruptions in how work gets done. Businesses already employing autonomous technologies, like drones, before the pandemic hit are now demonstrating just how valuable this technology can be. This has not gone unnoticed; we have seen invigorated efforts in drone delivery and work that can support social distancing and remote asset management is in demand. Drone companies who are able to make a long-term business case and define in quantifiable ways the benefits and value of drone technology and services have been able to find new customers looking to get back to work.

Companies like Wind River, a company that specializes in next generation computing systems for technologies like drones and other intelligent edge systems and devices, have seen this potential play out in a number of ways since the pandemic redefined the ways we needed to get done. We spoke with Alex Wilson, Director of Aerospace and Defense at Wind River, to get his insights on the pandemic how it is reshaping the way businesses and the public are discovering and/or reexamining the value of autonomous systems, how regulations and public acceptance are impacting adoption and the future of the drone industry, and more.   

Danielle Gagne: In the Wind River blog, “Unmanned Systems and Life in the Time of Social Distancing,” a point was made about social distancing and isolation proving use cases from a technological and business case standpoint. What do you think it will take to make that case and bring these use cases into mainstream use?

Alex Wilson: We’ve been talking for years and years about autonomous vehicles in the commercial world, and the stumbling block is always that business case argument. A lot of the projects we have worked on at Wind River with our customers tends to be for military use cases, where the funding model, advantages, and return on investment model is different. I think within the commercial space, it’s really trying to figure out how to make these systems at affordable costs and at a low enough cost that makes a business case become viable.

I think this crisis has shown us that if we had this technology it would have made life a lot easier. I think one takeaway we’ll get out of this is that it is going to magnify the business case for this kind of technology. But it is up to governments to move forward the legislation to allow drones to fly within commercial airspace.

I think another aspect is being able to accelerate digital transformation, especially now that people are working from home and don’t have access to equipment, labs, and all the stuff that we normally would have on site. So, I think there is going to be a move to look toward virtual collaboration tools. Teams are scattered across a lot of geographic locations and there is scarcity of materials and hardware, so you have to replicate it virtually through simulation across your team. Working from home is creating these different scenarios that require more simulation, automated technology, and collaborative tools.

The same post also suggests that there is a “silent revolution on the rise.” This is a rather provocative idea. What are some ways you are seeing this revolution happen and how much of it is due to our current circumstance? Do you think that momentum will continue after this crisis has passed or will that depend on how successfully we, as an industry, leverage this interest to build a stronger business case?

Before all of this happened there has been a lot of work on this kind of technology happening in the background. There were a few companies who have figured out that the last mile delivery is a real issue that was costing them a lot of money. With this kind of situation, I think it has pushed that thought process further, and I hope it continues. There are a lot of great ideas being developed about how you might build or deploy these kinds of systems.

I think it all comes down to how to build something that can meet regulatory standards and keeping that long record of safety that aviation is known for. But I also think we need to take a commonsense approach, there is a difference between carrying cargo and carrying people. I think there could be ways that you can build up an infrastructure that can allow unmanned cargo to operate safely and securely without having to change regulations in a huge way. I think that can happen much more quickly than unmanned transport aviation. 

In a recent podcast, you bring up an excellent point, startups want to develop quickly and produce ever new versions of their product—similar to other tech companies out there (Apple comes to mind). These systems are designed to quickly develop and evolve. But this goes against the regulatory environment of the FAA and other rule-making bodies, whose concern is ensuring the safety of that airspace. Testing and certification to get clearance to fly is a major process, and regulations are starting to indicate a trend toward these more involved safety requirements. This is not only time consuming; it is also costly. What are some ways you think the industry will reconcile these two disparate ends of the spectrum? Where do you think that sweet spot of safety and marketability/cost exists?

If you look at the history of aviation, the whole reason we have air traffic management and safety standards is because of the early disasters we had in the aviation industry. These have been integral in ensuring the safety of everyone involved in the industry. We’ve been trying to modernize that space. If you look at the way it operates now, in some sense, it is quite archaic—it relies on voice communications, a pilot in the aircraft talking to a controller on the ground to get permission—that’s kind of madness when you look at the volume of aircraft in the sky today. Why hasn’t it gone completely automated?

As we move to the next gen airspace, the idea is to start using computer to computer communications for aircraft missions. But you could argue that it could go further than that. When we look at areas where there aren’t any flight paths controlled by the FAA you could create a system from scratch because you don’t have any legacy data. If you look at companies like Volocopter and Lilium, they use point-to-point, predefined flight paths on which they operate—and that could be a relatively affordable model. 

I think it will take someone with some innovative ideas to make authorities think about how they might implement regulations in a way that would help everybody and allow commercial enterprises make money.

I think we will start to see a different type of software development on unmanned systems. We’ll see something more like the Apple model, where we can adjust and update the software much more easily using modern technology and modern software development techniques. This will enable us to maintain the safety and security of these systems, rather than being the monolithic build that we have today. I think we’ll see that development in 5 to 10 years, where there will be a much more dynamic use of software development.  

Since we are talking about the future, what do you foresee happening in the coming years and how are early movers able to shape that future? 

What we are seeing in general in the marketplace is a faster move around digital transformation—the exploitation of digital technology. This is a slow process, but I can easily start to see some early movers within the marketplace deploying and getting systems running either alongside the regulations or getting waivers. I can imagine in the next few years we’ll see the first urban air mobility companies flying products commercially. Perhaps an even easier entry point is outside of commercial flight paths and cities, where you can operate these kinds of services very easily. As these early projects kick off, people will start to realize the benefits, and the demand will grow.

It is important to remember that this isn’t just a safety exercise it is also a public trust exercise that we, as an industry, have to go through. So, we have to make sure we build these systems so that they are safe to fly because otherwise, the public won’t trust it, and nobody will use them.