Emerging Themes for UAS Enablement: Data Collection, Economic Development & Rural Connectivity
On March 24, Thales hosted a webinar with the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) titled "What FAA Reauthorization Means for States Working to Fund & Develop UTM (UAS Traffic Management)."
Steve Willer, Business Development Manager, Airspace Mobility Solutions at Thales moderated the discussion. He was joined by Bryan Budds, Deputy Administrator, Office of Aeronautics, Michigan DOT; Jared Esselman, Director of Aeronautics, State of Utah; Fred Judson, Director of the Ohio Uncrewed Aircraft Systems Center, Ohio Department of Transportation/DriveOhio; and James Leiman, Commissioner, North Dakota Department of Commerce.
While the discussion focused on U.S.-based UTM and AAM (Advanced Air Mobility) programs, many global themes emerged.
Panelists unanimously championed broader and more open collaboration with legislative decisionmakers at the national and federal levels. For example, Esselman recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration expand the scope of input and data collection to include more UTM and AAM programs, not just those in federal programs like UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) and BEYOND.
"We crawl, walk, run,” Esselman said. “Well, you have to let more people start crawling because you don't know who's ready to walk yet.”
Panelists also called to mind the challenges inherent to sharing information between different levels of government. Budds expressed a need to “break through federal and state silos” to deploy UTM and AAM infrastructure “that's truly intermodal.”
Leiman advocated for a multi-state consortium to accelerate drone integration, leverage new drone use cases, and attract new sectors to the economy: "That's where I see that collaboration taking place: States coming together to work with companies across the world to accelerate business development locally.”
One example of this is in North Dakota, where the FAA-designated Northern Plains UAS Test Site has become a valuable resource for testing and operationalizing Vantis, the state’s shared-use UAS network, which in turn has enabled North Dakota to make the business case for investing millions in UAS infrastructure.
“We went to industry and asked: what do you need to grow your business?” said Leiman. "Beyond visual line-of-sight was by far the first piece of this puzzle, followed by figuring out the data supply chain. So we went to lawmakers and said: this is what we need from an infrastructure, financial, and tax incentive perspective to accomplish this goal.”
Using the analogy of UAS test sites as feeder teams, where capabilities are demonstrated and matured, for a professional sports team, Willer posed another question to the group: are States ready to implement UTM and AAM infrastructure to support real-world use cases, or is more research and development needed?
Budds offered that real-world operationalization is necessary to determine community acceptance and community benefit. Research that happens in an isolated flight environment cannot measure true community impact.
Judson agreed, warning that "analysis paralysis” is a threat to industry progress.
The discussion closed with a question from the audience: how will the panelists use AAM infrastructure to connect rural communities into the state's economy?
“Just about every rural community in Michigan has access to an airport,” said Budds. "So now we're looking at how we leverage existing airport infrastructure that's been invested in for 80 years” to connect rural communities.
Judson offered up Ohio as an example: “We're talking to small airports to give them some of the same capabilities as the larger airports: data, connectivity, electrification. And we have logistics companies looking at small airports to solve some of their logistics challenges. Suddenly, what was just a county airport serving the local public is now potentially turning into a cargo hub, giving that rural community that kind of economic gain that wasn't realized before."
“Ohio takes the promises of AAM seriously,” said Judson. “And I can't wait to see it take place.”