Montage of Elements of the Skyward interface
Elements of the Skyward interface

[ Excerpted from an interview by Jeremiah Karpowicz with Jonathan Evans, CEO Skyward.]

We’re designing the next infrastructure and laying it out in an interoperable blueprint we can all build to.

Q What can you tell us about how technology and regulation are going to impact where things are headed for the industry?

A The interface of this technology with regulation is something that’s evolving, and I think we can look to some historical models to get a better understanding of how that is going to progress.

Right now, we’re at the point of having four-way intersections with no stop signs. We get that there are principles of cooperative airspace management with trusted purveyors of the airspace, but we also have a whole bunch of people who are just blasting through those figurative intersections right now who don’t know about those “rules of the road”. Things will improve, of course, and we’re working on getting to the algorithmically based stoplights. That’s really what we’re working on at UTM. We’re designing the next infrastructure and laying it out in an interoperable blueprint we can all build to.

Q So how does a UTM system factor into this evolution?

A What we’re doing at NASA UTM, in addition to the technocratic blueprint, is reference design. We’re looking to be able to show a networked conduit. To stand up a prototype.

Q So if this is about putting together a blueprint that makes sense for the industry as a whole, it seems like simply getting all of the key players together in the same room is more than half the battle. Is that a major part of this initiative?

A When you have Google and Amazon as a sort of new vanguard in the aviation constituency and then you pull in another huge base with companies like AT&T and Verizon, plus classic aviation companies like Lockheed Martin and Harris, you can get some incredible movement. All of these companies are involved in the same conversation about technocratic interoperability.

Q How do the definitions around legal and safer operation of a drone define the approach you’re taking as you put together this blueprint?

A The regulators are giving us the “what”. They’re defining the rules of the road for us. They’re requiring us to make the engineering and applications meet the standard of safety that exists in aviation today, and they should. This industry’s safety record is the gold standard. We on the industry side do the “how”. We produce the engineering solutions that meet those requirements.

When you want Amazon and Skyward operators to share the same airspace in Portland, so that Amazon can deliver packages and our clients can do a bridge inspection, those drones need to be able to operate safely in the same area. That’s fundamental, and codified.

Meeting that requirement is a set of engineering problems that we’re solving and proving they meet that requirement to the regulator.

This interview provides a glimpse behind the scenes into the working of the UTM process. It is interesting to hear Evans, who is clearly one of the bright stars, describe the technology as an applied response to a regulatory problem. To paraphrase “we need to show the FAA that the stuff we are designing will support the regulations they have put in place.”
For a primer on the UTM see this presentation by Parimal “PK” Kopardekar who heads up the UTM initiative for NASA and is the primary driver of the process Edwards describes.