Looking to the Past to Shape the Future is not Always a Good Idea

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Historians, Economists, and City Planners all have similar adages when it comes to the past – we must learn from it, examine past mistakes, and understand the cyclical patterns that emerge in order to circumvent the same mistakes. Perhaps no one said it better than Spanish philosopher George Santayana when he said that, “those who forget history, are destined to repeat it,” and this refrain keeps coming back to me as recent announcements in the advanced aviation mobility (AAM) and drone community were touted as the latest and greatest thinking to hit the industry – big steps forward for #BVLOS at the Farnborough Air Show.

If you are here at the Farnborough Air Show you’ll have noticed a massive shift in participation from new entrants and new technologies. Wisk and Lilium both announced new orders or new white papers detailing success in community engagement and an expansion of activities. Joby Aviation CEO JoeBen Bivert announced the pursuance of a type certification for their aircraft in the UK and a plan to support expansion of commercial service to Scotland. Incumbents like P&W & Collins Aerospace announced the support of electric technologies and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). From new players to incumbents redefining the status quo, #FIA2022 has started with a big bang looking to the future of mobility.

One announcement, however got me thinking about the fundamental misunderstanding I keep seeking in the drone industry. It is a misunderstanding that I believe completely undermines the value and potentially revolutionary nature of drones and AAM. That announcement came from the UK government itself in partnership with a regional consortium and the UK based UTM technology leader Altitude Angel.

While the willingness to advance new technologies in general and to try to find a business case for strategic deconfliction of air traffic, alignment of corridors to foster economic viability, and even support the evolution of next generation aviation is to be lauded – the culmination of that willingness manifests as a cocktail of inefficiency, inequity, and limited value for operations that clearly did not include companies with operational experience in its development. The main points for why this “Superhighway in the Sky” approach likely isn’t viable is the same reason that “vertiports for drones” continues to be a non-starter. Artificially herding drones and flying cars into one location for take-off and landing, simply for ease of monitoring or investment in ground infrastructure to circumvent inadequacies in technological advancement, is not going to be a winner in the long run.

Trains and Cars are so Last Century

First-off, the “Railways”, or “highways”, in the sky metaphor is not a good one – Every time we see new technologies developed and try to be sold we see the same time-worn metaphors for analogues. For vertiports it is airports for drones, for air traffic corridors air traffic corridors or freeways, but technological developments today are revolutionary not for their ability to mimic existing infrastructure. They are disruptive because they get the movement of goods and people closer to where people and goods need to go. Just as the internet enabled infinite on-ramps to information flows, just as blockchain promises a decentralized banking experience without information asymmetry, just as the printing press allowed everyday people to access literature and religion away from centralized power centers so to do drones or flying-taxis promise a low-carbon, all electric method for just-in-time, on-demand goods and movement without heavy overhead or a career’s worth of training. It’s all about eliminating the heavily pre-defined point to point nature that defines freeways or railways, and supporting a decentralized method for safety and customer service.

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Secondly, closely confining drones into highways near one another, and near passenger vehicles simply because of their autonomous nature seems like an accident waiting to happen. Not only are a new type of vehicle, from different manufacturers or service providers, with limited operational hours being confined to the same flight environment (likely characterized by low ground risk, granted) but also only because of that one characteristic. If we want to look backward as the thought behind this method clearly was, this seems akin to putting all your automobiles on one road and your horse-drawn carriages on another. This is a 2-dimensional planning method for a 4-dimensional world (the 4th dimension being time). It is frankly inefficient, unlikely to drive value to operators, and will most likely lead to a similar outcome as the UAS Pilot Projects in the United States where companies went elsewhere or sought other methods of flight as a path to customer driven scale.

This type of planning limits or eliminates the value of on-demand and emergency flight. If an order is placed to a flight operation in Reading for a delivery in Cambridge, that flight (based on the mapping in the video) will require a flight that is unnecessarily longer as it must follow the superhighway pathing. Whether that negates the value of the flight all-together or reduced the value somewhat, the superhighway is not fulfilling the overall goal for the autonomous flight industry – to promote safety, security, reliability, and sustainability. A sustainable industry must have operational flexibility even while it protect security and privacy.

Safety is not a replacement for Equity

Finally, using the railway and highway example is out of date for one final important reason – societal impact. While the advent of the railway systems did enable certain communities to flourish and new jobs to emerge it also led to the systemic destruction of impoverished communities and the beginnings of the carbon devastation of the environment. We should certainly look to a better future, defined by a more sustainable, flexible, decentralized, and supportive model of aviation transportation. One that is inclusive of communities it intends to serve, and one that engaged industry that understands the tradeoffs.

In other words, this transportation revolution does not need to be modeled after the mistakes of the 1800s, nor the 1900s. Let’s not fight yesterday’s war for efficiency, let’s redefine how we live by how we WANT to live. If you’re interested in how some cities are looking to redefine what’s possible, in partnership with industry, and in a way that supports what is best about these new technologies, check out the Principles of the Urban Sky from the folks at the City of Los Angeles and the World Economic Forum.