Tag: Innovation

From Drones Beware to Flight Aware – AiP 004

Read Time: 2 minutes

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As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations get ever-greater, the airspace is set to become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. There are also concerns over privacy with drones flying above people and private property, or too close to restricted areas like airports and other critical infrastructure.

At the same time, regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management, or UTM.

In this episode I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace. Of late, Unifly has been getting a lot of press, through its involvement in numerous demonstration in Europe and elsewhere, which has also created a lot of interest from VCs and potential customers – the CAAs and ANSPs.

Of course, there have been lessons learned along the way, from first needing to build a system for mission critical applications that is an open platform, upon which you can then start adding user interfaces. At the same time and most importantly – listen very carefully to the customer. And, as a ground-breaking company, one must be an evangelist and lead with a vision of the future when it comes to management of the airspace.

If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

To the City Hopper, Not the Chopper – AiP 003

Read Time: < 1 minute

Please subscribe to the Aviation Innovation Podcast on your preferred podcasting app. We will be on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Stichter, and Google Play.

Ever been frustrated by heavy traffic when you are in a rush to get to that all-important meeting? We all have! So, instead of being stuck in traffic gridlock, what if you could rise above it all, and quickly and comfortably fly to your urban destination in a 2-person pod the size of a Smart car?  That’s the idea behind Volocopter – an urban air taxi – and the brainchild of Alexander Zosel and Stephan Wolf, two entrepreneurs with a vision for urban air mobility. I guess the Jetsons must’ve influenced them!

In this episode I speak with Jan-Hendrik Boelens, chief technology officer at Volocopter, about the massive potential of urban aircraft systems, and the challenges that still lie ahead of the company as it moves towards commercial certification.

If you’re listening to this episode during your commute… maybe you’re stuck in traffic… take a look above you and imagine what it would be like to hop over it all!

If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

Meeting a Medical Need with Speed – AiP 002

Read Time: < 1 minute

Please subscribe to the Aviation Innovation Podcast on your preferred podcasting app. We will be on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Stichter, and Google Play.

More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain or gaps in infrastructure. Over 2.9 million children under age five die every year due to a lack of access to vaccines and essential medicines. Up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood. These are the sad truths that Zipline set out to address by rapidly delivering lifesaving medical products directly where they are needed.

In this interview I speak with Will Hetzler, Co-Founder and COO of Zipline, who I first met in Rwanda during the AviationAfrica Conference we were both speaking at in 2017. The California-based company has since expanded to Ghana and is actively being courted by VC’s and celebrities alike, like U2’s Bono!

Learn how this company has been pioneering delivery drone services in Africa, which could one day provide an essential service closer to your home.

If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

Don’t Fall in Love with Your Technology – AiP 001

Read Time: < 1 minute

Please subscribe to the Aviation Innovation Podcast on your preferred podcasting app. We will be on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Stichter, and Google Play.

Ever been stuck in a long line-up at airport security and wondered how it could be sped up? Eric Bergeron did, and so founded Optosecurity in 2003, which provided the world’s first and most deployed remote screening and centralized image processing solution that helps airports reduce costs, increase throughput, and enhance security. Optosecurity has recently been acquired by Vanderlande Industries, the global market leader in logistics process automation for airports, express delivery and warehousing.  

Twelve years later, Eric was at it again with FlyScan, which provides automated, airborne leak detection services for the oil and gas pipeline industry. In recent years this sector has been at the forefront of political, environmental and economic debates due to highly publicized pipeline spills, which have made future pipeline project proposals contentious. Monitoring pipelines and detecting leaks quickly (even underground) can prevent these from becoming major environmental disasters.

In this episode I speak with Eric about his motivations, not only as an engineer and businessperson, but about what drives him as an innovator and how he works ahead of technology instead of behind it.

If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

Welcome to the Aviation Innovation Podcast – AiP 000

Read Time: < 1 minute

Please subscribe to the Aviation Innovation Podcast on your preferred podcasting app. We will be on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Stichter, and Google Play.

Welcome to the official launch of the Aviation Innovation Podcast, hosted by Eugene Hoeven! The show will interview the movers and shakers in the business today, the pioneers of yesterday, and bring you the stories of the innovators and entrepreneurs in our aviation industry.

Learn of the innovations and emergent technologies affecting aviation and air transport, the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship in our sector, as well as the strategies and tactics for success.

If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

Let’s get digital, digital, I wanna get digital, let’s get into digital….

Read Time: 14 minutes

Digital air traffic services will help create the smart airport of the future, offering greater flexibility, enhanced security, and more efficient traffic management at reduced costs.

Digitalization is starting to take hold in aviation in a big way, with promises of greater efficiency and productivity improvements, new insights and better decision-making, and further innovation. It is an evolutionary process that will yield revolutionary outcomes, as it is set to change business models and provide new, value-creating opportunities.

For Saab this journey started some 15 years ago when LFV, the air navigation service provider (ANSP) of Sweden, presented Saab with a problem – whether it was possible to provide air traffic control from a remote location in order to keep an airport from permanently closing down due to the high cost of maintaining a staffed control tower. This spearheaded the evolution in the air traffic management (ATM) industry.

The collaboration that resulted between LFV and Saab was a success and put into operation the first Remote Tower Service (RTS) in the world. In June 2016, the partnership evolved to the next level, with LFV and Saab establishing Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions (SDATS), combining LFV’s expertise in delivering digitalized, innovative and certified operational solutions with Saab’s technological leadership and global organization. The company commenced operations on 1 September 2016. In this episode of Vantage Point, I speak with Per Ahl, the newly-appointed CEO of SDATS, about how this came about and his vision for the future.

Digitalization is one of today’s big trends and has been for a while. In many ways, aviation is playing catch-up, with Saab being one of its main proponents. What got this going for Saab?

It all started with LFV – the air navigation service provider of Sweden – approaching us with a problem that it was getting too costly to provide tower control at Örnsköldsvik Airport and that discontinuing air traffic services would effectively close down the airport. Then, another airport that was in another part of Sweden was on the borderline to be closed down, because of cost. But these airports are still very important for the local communities, and industry and so forth.

So, at that time LFV asked Saab whether there would be a possibility to combine towers – a new type of infrastructure – with the operational side to lower the overall cost. That was actually the starting point for making the feasibility study in 2007-08. The results of that capability study were so encouraging that both LFV and Saab realized that – absolutely – we can do this in a completely new way.

And then when we looked at it differently – cost-benefit and business case wise – that if we combine different airports into a center and centralize the whole operation, what would the gain be? That has been a very interesting journey, to see that by centralizing several airports you can reduce the overall direct cost by up to 20 – 30%.

So, centralization has been driven by this kind of solution, for us at least. We now have one operations center – after we got the first-in-the-world-airport to be certified and operated from the center in 2015. Now, we have four airports at that center. We will be building a second center in Stockholm Arlanda, that initally will have up to four airports in operation next year, but will have the capacity for up to 22 airports.

You mentioned certification and of course the regulatory element is quite critical. How has that played a role? How important has it been for Saab to get the regulatory community on side?

That has been a journey by itself, I will say. There are several different, very important stakeholders, and one important stakeholder is the regulatory part as we are running a safety-critical operation. As we were the front runner, nobody had done this before. So, absolutely, this was very important to have the regulator engaged from the earlier days.

The first tender was released in 2011, and we won that. And then, we started to look into how should an approved system look like. As you know, digitalization and technology itself will be an opener for new services and applications. You need to change the whole regulatory framework. This is something that will take time. So, we made a decision – both LFV and Saab – in 2011, to focus on today’s rules and regulations [based on recommendations contained in ICAO Doc 4444 – Procedures for Air Navigation Services: Air Traffic Management.]

So, we really scrutinized all the different paragraphs in ICAO documentation, the Swedish Air Law, even down to the local airport municipal laws and so on, in order to see whether we could implement the technology, and on top of that, the related operations procedures.

That was the starting point – whether the whole system could be driven as an operational, as-today system. But we realized that we could do much, much, much more with digitalization, and with new applications. But in order not to blur the interaction with the regulator, we put that aside and really focused on delivering the technology package to meet the requirements of today’s operation.

We started to install the first system in 2011, and we had hoped that it would take maybe two years to get the approval. But it took much longer. In 2015 we got the “tick in the box”, and by then LFV and Saab committed 30,000 manhours to provide safety cases and arguments, and all the procedures and human factors analyzes and so forth – 30,000 manhours! But then, for the second airport we could reuse quite a lot and we were down to 16,000 manhours. And then with the third airport, we are down to 5 to 6,000 manhours. We started to have a process now – and we could interact with the regulator and so on.

That has been an eye opener for other regulators around the world. I mean, EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] was one of the first to adopt new kinds of directives. Now ICAO has also started to look into this, and I think it was a very fruitful meeting in Bangkok just a months ago – they have started to realize, “This is something we have to take care of.” It has been a journey to change the mindset, even on the regulator side. But as we have proved, we have a system in operation and we now have competition, and they have done a great job as well. So, it’s not if this will come, it’s already here.

So, it has been really a long journey to come where we are today, and I’m very pleased that during the last – I would say – two years the view has been changing dramatically. It’s not about the technology; it’s how to take care of change management, not just from the regulatory side, but also on the operations side. That has been very, very important.

So, it’s really been a learning process for all, I hear. As you gain the experience, and of course mindsets change, and the culture around innovation and technology adoption changes, would it be right to say that it’s really about getting people to think about new approaches to doing things?

I would say so, that’s been our number one experience. Forget about the technology, the technology provider can solve that. We have proved that. Our competitors have proved that. Everything is revolves around change management. That’s the most important element, to have people change mindsets. That’s the most important part.

If you create a center, and have the whole operation run from there, then you have to move people – controllers from airport A to the center – and you must take care of that movement and the changing [work] environment. That has been a very important element to understand, and to offer this new work environment in the most positive way.

So, clarity of vision and having everyone embrace that vision, that requires quite a bit of leadership and clarity of communication to building that trust. Has that been the biggest element to success?

Absolutely. Yes, definitely. You have to stand up, hold meetings and interact especially with the operations people. And it’s important to have a spokesperson from the operations side who can be part of the whole rollout. That has been very, very important.

We were lucky in Sweden in that we had a program manager from the operations side. In the beginning, he was the most negative person in the group. But we picked him as the Program Manager from the operations side and told him, “Okay, now you have to be on our side, so to speak, and really drive the change technology-wise and so forth.” And he is our best advocate now and salesperson, because in his position he has to be able to say, “Okay, I will not sign off on this solution until I know that my fellow colleagues will accept it.”

So, our system really has been operations driven from day one, and that has been with his help, in order not to be engineering-driven or technology-driven. It’s operations driven. And, it was a generational thing as well. That is, if you have been living at a country regional airport and spending 25 years in the tower, to change to a new way of doing things that’s a tough journey, I must say

But, with the younger generation, it’s a completely other ballgame. We have a huge lack of ATCOs (air traffic controllers) in Europe and in Asia. And with the younger generation, they don’t want to sit in a dark regional airport. They want like to be part of the IT or gaming environment.

Now, there’s an attractiveness of this kind of environment. We have a center with a good work office environment, with screens and so forth and the latest technology. We have one young controller – he’s 25 years old – who came directly from the training academy into the center, and it has worked perfectly. I mean, it was no issue at all. It’s his environment. His background is in gaming, what he does as a hobby and in his spare time.

Then, our Swedish regulator realized that, “Hey, you haven’t been in a regular tower. You must go down to the airport – 600 kilometers away – where you will work for two weeks.” So, they sent him off and after one week he called back to the center and said, “Please, can I come home? It’s so boring!”

So, for us it was very important to know that we were on the right track because we have to be attractive for the younger generation that has not yet [decided to] become an ATCO. We needed to understand how the work environment plays a role in order to be successful in the [labour] market.

That’s a very important point, especially with the [labour] shortages, not just for ATCOs, but pilots and mechanics and so forth. I think technology advances and innovation are very much going to be the magnets for attracting the new generation.
Obviously, how this all started was you were dealing with a challenge – Sweden was dealing with a challenge. But, when it comes to the adoption of digital towers and digital ATS in other countries that may not have the same challenge as Sweden did in beginning, how do they embrace this technology? Their case for change may be different.

It’s different drivers in different countries. If you have a competitive [air traffic services] environment like in the UK for instance, then it’s other drivers. For other countries, where you have a government-owned ANSP, they have other drivers. You can see that aviation is quite a young industry itself. With the creation of airports after the second World War, there are now lots of airports that have very old towers that need to be replaced or refurbished. To refurbish or build a new tower, it’s very, very costly.

[Those airports] will have a very easy business case to justify, and to go for [RTS], because it is at a fraction of the cost. Even in Sweden, our fourth airport – it’s a ski resort up in the western part of Sweden – is building a totally new greenfield airport with the latest technology, including our system. So, to save money, instead of building a “brick and mortar” tower, they go for the [RTS] solution. And what we have offered to them – since their season is only during winter – is that we will provide them with air traffic services during six months of the year. So, suddenly you can base a new business model on a digital platform that was not possible for a “brick and mortar” tower.

And, sometimes you need to have “five and a half” controllers…. You can’t have a half controller, so you must have six and that may be a very costly. But what we can offer is ATC on demand now. Maybe you only have two hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon and the rest of the day there’s nothing. That is something we can offer.

So, it’s actually a scalable solution to meet the demand. and, of course, you save significant cost in the actual installation of the capability. Do you see, in terms of future airports around the world, that the control tower as we know it will no longer exist, but will have more sensors providing the necessary information?

Absolutely. If you look at Asia, India and so forth with the huge growth in traffic, they have a lack of ATCOs and they see the digital rollout as part of the [future] infrastructure. Definitely.

Our company SDATS, since I became CEO three months ago, has also transformed into an ANSP. So, we have our own operator certificate. We are a true digital ANSP now. From the 1st of September, the whole center that is in operation now with LFV will be transferred into our company. So, we will have from the 1st of September, controllers on the payroll and everything.

Last week, we had the last negotiation with the union for this transition. So that has been an interesting journey and an experience, definitely. But I think the reason we do this; is for the reason that we need to understand the full spectrum of this – the impact – and then you have to understand how the operation will be run in the future. And the only way [to understand] is to become an ANSP ourselves.

So, what we can offer to the market is not only the technology itself, but we can provide support with operational services and for getting it approved, the required training, and so forth. But as well, in the competition, where there are possibilities. We can offer a full-service concept as that of an ANSP.

Very interesting. No doubt there are some real challenges. You just mentioned one – of course, the labor element needs to be brought along. But, what would be your number one challenge at this point in time?

At this point, in general, it is still the change management part. Definitely. To have everybody involved from the beginning. That is something we always emphasize when meeting a client – you have to have a very, very good understanding of the impact on the whole organization. It’s not only the operations side. It’s also the engineering side. It’s everybody. You all have to be a part of this, because it changes the foundation in any ANSP.

What does that mean for the type of skillsets, mindsets, and then the kind of aptitudes that you need to have on your team to be able to manage this in a proper way? I would imagine technical skills – yes, this is good, but it’s perhaps less important than the human EQ (emotional intelligence) skills.

Absolutely. As I said, we started already in 2006 with this. And then, we had the operational system in 2015. We have, I would say, a huge experience bank in this. Not just on our technology side, but as well how to make this journey or the change part. And I’m very, very lucky that we handpicked the people who have been part of this from day one on the operations side and as well as in leading the change within LFV.

They are now working in my company. That is a fantastic situation – that we can have them onboard – to help guide other customers around the world. And that has been very, very positive. The feedback we get is that [customers] need a “hand to hold”, so to say, because nobody has done this before. We have already had our pitfalls, and know what to avoid. Instead, [customers benefit from] our experience, and that has been a very, very positive feedback.

On a more personal note, you’ve been appointed CEO [of SDATS, a joint Saab and LFV company) – congratulations! And, you certainly have a very impressive career – transitioning from flight dispatcher to airline fleet engineer, to consulting, and more recently to marketing and sales. That’s not something you started out in, but given this broad experience that you have, how has that helped you with some of the early wins at Saab, and also in terms of creating a vision for the future?

I must say this has been a huge experience for me, and a very positive one. I was flying with Scandinavian Airlines as a pilot as well on the DC-9 and 737s. To have seen the whole spectrum in the industry, that has been very, very positive. I have had the pleasure to work with very good people all over the world.

I have always been intrigued that… generally speaking, the rules and regulations and how the operation is performed is still very much from the time of the Second World War. I have always seen the possibility to do it in a more efficient and less costly way. And, to bring people together, so that you no longer have the stove pipes of the past so that you can integrate information between the different stakeholders.

I hope in the near future, we can integrate aircraft information more in the ground system, because it’s still a guessing game whereby the pilot has all the information in the cockpit with the FMS (flight management system) to fly the optimal routes and the environmentally friendly approaches, etc.

But that is not taking into account the ground system, where {ATCOs] are still guessing what the pilot, or aircraft will do. We need to come to some kind of understanding to share the best information and not start guessing how to fly. I mean, it’s ridiculous now in 2019 that we would still operate in the same way.

So, there may still be hope for VDL Mode 4? (VHF Digital Link (VDL) is a means of sending information between aircraft and ground stations, and in the case of VDL Mode 4, other aircraft)

Ha, ha, ha,…. You said it!

Within the context of the Internet of Things – that is really driven more from the software industry and mobile telephony, if you will – it’s very much in the same vein. I see this already in unmanned traffic management (UTM), that conceptually, is quite different. It’s relying a lot more on automation, relying a lot more on digital information exchange, and so forth. So it’s interesting. It may well be that traditional ATM will migrate more, conceptually at least, towards a UTM-type of setup.

I definitely think so. I have always challenged ANSPs around the world, “How do you foresee your role in 10 years’ time or 15 years’ time?” And the response typically is that it will be the same. But it will not be the same!

You have other pressure now, coming from other industries like Google or Amazon and those kind of guys. I mean, they will just go for this, and I’m surprised that the ANSP [community] has not taken action to be part of [shaping the future.] For me, it’s amazing.

What we are doing now, when we design our centers, is that UTM will be a working position within our center in the future. Definitely. But what we are doing right now is the ATS side, for obvious reasons. But, within Saab we have other divisions looking at new surveillance technology, drone tracking, automatic detection between birds and drones, and so on. And this has been very, very successful.

And as well, security from remote locations. We have Vasteras Airport in Stockholm, after working hours at four o’clock the full security operation is run from Stockholm Arlanda Airport with sensors and so on. That would be an integrated part of the center in the future.

So, this is just the starting point and I often refer to the telecom industry. They have had the copper network early on and suddenly you have an iPhone, a smart phone with apps. I didn’t know what an app was 15 years ago, and [this industry] just exploded and I can’t live without it. This would be the same with digitalization of the ATS service, or airport operation.

To wrap up, and looking to the future, what would be your most important goals and objectives in the coming years to continue to create value and drive change in the industry?

I think a very important milestone for us – now that SDATS has become an ANSP and we’ll be running the operation from the center as of the 1st of September – is that we’re going to bring our knowledge and experience elsewhere, to all parts of the globe.

I think there will be some very interesting opportunities in the near term – one, two, three, four, five years from now. Definitely, we’ll be a global change agent in this and we will be part of it. We have already started to push the whole industry in this direction, and I think that will be a challenging journey for everybody. But, it’s the only way to do it.

I would imagine that it will be a somewhat different rate of change in different regions, but I think every region ultimately will need to embrace this new approach.

Yeah. We can see that already now with the space-based ADS-B and so forth. It’s a big change. And the way we have done the infrastructure side of things in the last 50 years, that will not survive. It’s something from the past. We have a continent like Africa…. why should they invest in copper networks, and so on, when they can go directly into this kind of solution and create a completely new operation to support the build-up of the economy in the country in a completely new way? I mean, it’s ridiculous to go the old way.

And we’ve already seen that in Africa, when it comes to a digital telephony, mobile phones are being used for payment services – it’s more advanced in Africa than in other parts of the world. And the use of drones for delivery. I was in Rwanda and saw the Zipline operation to deliver blood products to remote the clinics. And so that’s beyond visual line of sight operations (BVLOS), and it’s already being done in Africa.
Leapfrogging to the next generation of technology is certainly very, very possible in places like Africa, and it’s a region that will be growing quite significantly over the years to come. Interesting times. Well… Per, thank you very much for this.

Leading the Charge with Ampaire

Read Time: 11 minutes
The Ampaire Electric EEL Takes Flight – www.ampaire.com

Electric propulsion: What’s happening on the ground is starting to happen up in the air

In this episode of Vantage Point, I speak with Kevin Noertker, Co-Founder and CEO of Ampaire, Inc. an electric airplane startup based out of Hawthorne, California in the Greater Los Angeles area. Located at Hawthorne Municipal Airport, they are in good company along with the Tesla Design Center and SpaceX – an epicenter of innovation in aerospace and electric vehicles.

In June, Ampaire began its flight test program on its first commercial aircraft, the Ampaire Electric EEL, a twin-engine Cessna 337 Skymaster modified to fly with one conventional combustion engine and one electric motor. It is the largest hybrid-electric aircraft flying today, which is now offered for sale to general aviation pilots. Later this year, the Electric EEL is set to enter flight trials on commercial routes with Mokulele Airlines in Hawaii. As regulators and air transport companies around the world try to reduce carbon emissions, this bold step toward electric aviation can possibly amount to the giant leap the sector has been looking for.

What got you and your team started? What was the grand vision?

For me, it all started back in late 2015, though the company we founded got going in early 2016. It began actually when my now co-founder and chief technology officer, Cory Combs, reached out to me just saying, “Hey, let’s grab lunch. I have an idea I want to talk to you about.”

He had been absolutely passionate about aviation, airplanes, and designing planes. Ever since he was a student back at Stanford and nearly got run over by one of the first Teslas (because it was so quiet), he had this crazy fascination with electric vehicles as well. But, pairing those two together – airplanes and electric vehicles – for a long time just wasn’t going to work. There are so many technology barriers as well as regulatory hurdles. But it was the technology side that he was looking at.

Around the 2009 timeframe, when Cory and I first met at Northrop Grumman as early engineers, though he was passionate about these things, there was never even a serious thought about it. But, over the next five or so years in just reviewing the trade studies on his own that by mid-2015 the stars were starting to align. And so, when he reached out to me for us to grab lunch, he pitched this crazy idea for all-electric aviation…. for the highest performance electric aircraft that you could imagine. So, you’ve seen a lot of news and hype around vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) planes. That was part of this original vision for what are the amazing futuristic opportunities that will be uniquely enabled by electric vehicle technology.

So, we started out with that North Star vision for high performance electric aircraft and very rapidly focused on a pathway that enables us to bring practical, compelling electric aircraft to the market, so that we’re not just building toys for the uber wealthy, or business jet alternatives, or ways for people to skip over traffic. We’re building something what has a positive impact on the world around us, that connects communities, that’s affordable for everyone not just the business jet users. Really capturing the big value proposition in aviation.

For me personally, I pick my roles in companies, and in starting this company with Cory, we based it on three criteria. I’m always looking for the most meaningful, challenging, and visible problems in the world to solve. I believe that this is certainly one of the most meaningful problems in aviation. It’s incredibly challenging to start a company from scratch and certainly one as forward-looking as electric aviation. And it’s visible, because it touches so many people’s lives. For me, it hit on all cylinders. So, I just didn’t even hesitate to get it started in 2016.

If you kind of zoom in on the communities around an airport, these communities are up in arms about aviation, oftentimes feeling like it’s a burden to them – feeling like the airport is more of a burden than an asset. This dissatisfaction in the communities is being driven by the noise and pollution that come from aircraft. And so, communities try to shut down or limit operations at municipal airports around the country and that’s just a shame. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The electrification of planes reduces the noise and pollution. And so, we think we’ll be able to turn these great assets back into benefits rather than burdens on the communities as well.

No doubt you’ve got a lot of challenges,… what about the technical aspect of things, how is that going? I mean I can just imagine,… fuel cells, batteries,…. There are some real difficulties there. What are you running into?

Our mission is to be the world’s most trusted developer of practical, compelling electric aircraft. So, “Trusted. Practical. Compelling.” is the frame for how we approach these challenges. How do I bring to market a trusted, practical, compelling aircraft given the technology constraints, the regulatory constraints, and the public perception constraints around aviation.

In terms of technical constraints, this is effectively energy storage and the density of that energy storage. In other words, energy per unit weight. In batteries, you’re looking at how many watt hours per kilogram at a cell or a pack level. It’s analogous to fuel cells. Certainly, the technology right now for batteries is a limiting factor on the range that a fully electric plane can fly.

You can get sufficient power out of those packs generally. So, power is not the restriction. You can easily take off with sufficient power with these energy storage sources. But the range is really what ends up being the limiting factor. Beyond the limitation from the technology, you also have the regulatory issues and public perception, which are challenges. Now, these challenges are in place for a good reason. Regulations keep us safe. The regulators, the FAA in the United States, requires a high level of safety and reliability for vehicles.

And so, the challenge is in taking existing technology and sufficiently demonstrate that it meets the strict safety requirements of aviation. We’re not going to get any leniency on safety. Safety is first priority in the industry and it’s absolutely a core requirement. And so, that’s a challenge from the perspective that while these technologies have been applied in ground transportation more so than in aviation where the requirements and safety regulations are very different. In many cases, they are stricter than in ground transportation. All the while, we have the constraint of weight and energy density. You can do things to package a battery to make it safer, but then that could drive more weight into the system. So, it’s this multi-variable optimization that you’re working with.

And then, finally, one of the challenges is on the public perception side and the customer acceptance. The question being, if you built a fully electric plane would people trust enough to fly in it? What we’ve found is that many people – I mean there are people certainly very excited to fly in fully electric planes – but many want to see it proven out first. They want to see a hybrid electric, or a parallel, like we’re flying here in California. They want to see redundancy and an increased level of safety built into the system, or at least a perceived increased level of safety, so that they can then grow comfortable with the product. And that, again, within our mission of “Trusted. Practical. Compelling.” This is how we have found our way to what we believe is a product that can be trusted, that is very practical in using existing technology, and serves a very compelling market needs in regional aviation.

Right. You’ve not really come up with something entirely new. The airframe is traditional, but the propulsion is electric. In this way, you’ve managed to jump the certification hurdle of a completely new and unproven aircraft. You probably would’ve had a much bigger challenge on your hands. But, that’s not the case here.

Correct. And that’s been by design for us. We decided that starting with retrofits, kind of like the Tesla roadster approach where they retrofitted a Lotus Elise with an electric drive train, was the best approach. Though you lose some of the performance that you would otherwise have in a new fully-optimized design, you can gain significant benefit in the simplicity, in the comfort level that customers have, as well as in the ability to move it through the regulatory hurdle.

So, going for the supplemental type certificate rather than the full new type certificate enables you to move more readily through that process. It’s certainly the first step, kind of the crawl, walk, run approach (or the crawl, walk, run, fly approach!) to integrating electric aircraft for common use. Putting ourselves 15 years into the future, you’re going to have new build planes, certified and flying around. You already have a number of them that are in the design phase and some early prototypes doing flight demonstrations. New design planes certainly are in our roadmap, but the key question is how do you get there? And to get there in a practical way is, we think, a critical first step.

What is the range at the moment that you can fly?

We’ve designed this first plane, which is our retrofit Cessna 337 Skymaster, to have a useful range of 200 nautical miles (nm). You can imagine quite a bit of design flexibility where we’re trading weights between battery weights, payload weight, and fuel weight that you’re putting into the plane. So, our baseline here is the 200 nm range, which effectively for regional airlines, their longest routes are generally about 100 nautical miles. The vast majority of their routes are less than a hundred nautical miles. And so, we’re able to hit those routes round-trip with this 200 nm range. It’s again by design that we’ve placed our range there.

I presume, so far your discussions have been with FAA? Have you gone international in the sense of EASA, Transport Canada, the Australians, or Asia as well?

Absolutely. This is a global opportunity. We’re very focused on FAA certification, but have had conversations with each of the other groups. We have employees based in the EU, in Australia, in China, working these conversations as well as some business development. And our team is very actively engaged in the global conversation around this.

We even helped kick off one of the SAE committees around charging standards. We identified one of the early challenges that ground electric vehicles ran into and still sometimes have, which is inconsistent charging standards across the world, with the hope of creating a standard set of charging interfaces and requirements. We have helped kick that off last November. I suppose the first meeting even was at Oshkosh last summer. So very, very active in the global conversation.

How is the technology expected to evolve over time that will require further regulatory engagement? How rapid is the technology expected to evolve?

When we consider a solution in technology and look at the implications, it effectively leads to either longer range flights or larger aircraft. Right, those are kind of the two areas where you would anticipate the growth outcome to be in. So, for the longer range flights – we’ll limit the discussion to battery energy density – you’re looking at about a 3 to 5% per year growth in battery energy density. Some project more aggressively than that. We think 5% is a realistic baseline to set and plan for. So, that energy density will enable you to increase the range of an all-electric plane, now flying only the shortest of routes. But, projecting out 10 or 15 years, you very well may have these planes flying upwards of 300 to 500 nautical miles.

When you consider – like, draw a histogram of how far passengers fly on average, so not just the flights, but really what the passengers are doing – you see that again the vast majority of people are flying routes that are less than 500 nautical miles, a lot of them around 300. If you have a 300 nm range electric or hybrid electric plane, where the operating cost is significantly lower, and the takeoff and landing distances could be lower as well, you now open up a whole new realm of viability for more routes to more destinations than ever before.

And that’s really core to Ampaire’s vision for the future of aviation. It is the opening up those new opportunities in the regional air travel market, and certainly we’ll be seeing that as the technology progresses.

As far as payload is concerned with this particular aircraft type – the Skymaster – are there any restrictions at the moment, and is this going to change, improve if you will, over time?

It will improve over time, because we will be able to have more energy stored in the battery system. However, by design we have set the aircraft with an expectation that it’ll have either a six- or four-seat configuration, depending on the customer desire. It’s originally a six-seat plane and so we’re maintaining payload for customers who desire that. Similarly, the nine-seat planes – your Caravans and Kodiaks, and a few others that fly regional routes – those planes you’ll also be able to maintain payload. It’s really a trade between the payload and the battery.

As you get the higher energy density batteries in there, then you can fly further on fully electric. Or, you can trade off some of the battery weights for greater payload. But baseline, we’re holding the payload of these aircraft consistent with their original design.

The engine, of course, is different. Is that all your design or have you partnered with a manufacturer of electric engines?

We are the engineering house architecting the system – and so the systems engineers as well as the integrators. We are relying on the electric vehicle supply chain for generating all the great technology. Whether that’s batteries, motors, inverters, or other power electronics. We’re integrating those components out of the supply chain into a system, which we have engineered and architected on our own.

What’s been the customer perception so far? I’ve seen a news clip about PAX (Personal Airline Exchange) just having placed an order for 50 Ampaire EEL Electric Aircraft. What are they looking for? What are some of their criteria in terms of making that decision?

We’ve talked to a wide variety of airlines. Airlines that are already in operation, some others that are just coming online. Just like there are many types of aircraft, it’s because there are a wide variety of desires from a customer standpoint.

What we’re finding is a consistency in the value proposition alignment with customers across the board, being reduced operating costs. If you look at the total cost of ownership for operating an aircraft, this is really driven by fuel and maintenance. Upfront cost matters and depreciation matters, but fuel and maintenance are the major drivers. So, each customer is very interested in that low direct operating cost point. There is more differentiation between customers on what their expectations are, as far as the payload or capacity of an aircraft. Some are excited about the four- and six-seat planes. Those are looking at more of an on-demand service offering, like on-demand charter experience for aviation.

So, imagine using an app to call a plane, effectively almost like an Uber or Lyft. The folks looking at that type of application and business model are interested in the smaller plane, like Electric EEL Skymaster conversion, which PAX placed orders for. Whereas you have others whom we’re coordinating and collaborating with, like Mokulele Airlines out in Hawaii. And we got, I believe, 14 letters of interest from various airlines.

But with Mokulele Airlines, they operate a fleet of Caravans that generally operate with a 10-seat configuration. And so, for airlines like that, we may need to scale up to a larger plane, which is obviously in our roadmap as well. And then, you have others like Widerøe over in Norway, who operate larger planes like the Dash 8 that operate in 40-seat configuration.

Now, that’s a challenge, because within existing regulations, the only regulation – at least in the United States – that has been modified to allow for certification of electric planes is Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs. Part 23 limits the payload capacity up to 19 passengers. So, nothing more than 19 passengers is allowed in the category, which makes those 40-passenger Dash 8’s out of the regulation realm for us. We anticipate that will eventually change, but we’ll have to watch and see as regulatory changes move slowly.

To round off the discussion, what would be your biggest challenge at this point in time?

I believe the biggest challenge right now are the public and regulatory perceptions on the safety of an electric vehicle system in a plane, likely focusing in on the safety of battery packs and their methods for being integrated and used in the plane. It’s an area we’re focusing on. We’ve had no issues. We’ve been very, very diligent about it, but I anticipate it’ll continue to be an area we have to focus on, because of the safety critical nature of the component and the public perceptions and concerns over batteries, and some issues they’ve had with cars and phones, or perceived issues that they’ve had.

Yes, especially considering the lithium battery flare ups and burns in flight. That’s a major issue. We spoke of the vision, what would be the milestones in the years ahead? What would you consider to be some important goals and objectives going forward?

Number one is to get a second version of our plane flying on customer routes. So, that’s flying on Mokulele’s route, experimentally starting later this year. Beyond that, we’re going to be pushing toward our certification. So, that’s a supplemental type certificate under the FARs for our first vehicle. We’re targeting to receive that approval by the end of 2021.

In the meanwhile, we’ll also be scaling to larger planes. So, the world is not all six-seat planes. Certainly, the larger ones are very interesting. And so, a major goal or objective for us is to scale our product up to those larger planes, still within the Part 23 category. That’ll pretty well cover it in the next few years for us.

We do have some research and development activities related to our future new build plane designs. We’ve got two NASA contracts to do assessments on the efficiency and noise characteristics of our Tailwind vehicle. And those will be in parallel to the more practical near-term deliveries of the retrofit vehicles.

Well, quite some ambitions there and you’ve already achieved quite a lot in a short amount of time. So, congratulations to you, to Cory, and the rest of the team, Susan, and Peter as well. And, of course, you’ve got the great support from a number of partners, venture capital, and so forth. So, it’s a great thing you’ve got going.

Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Setting the Tone for Growth

Read Time: 13 minutes

The team at Nolinor

How giving up control will allow your company to grow

Nolinor is a Quebec-based charter airline that started operations in 1997, providing air transport services to hunting and fishing outfitters, eventually receiving permission to also provide its own aircraft maintenance. In 2004, the Prud’Homme family trust became majority shareholder and the company has been expanding rapidly since, first growing its fleet of Convair 580 aircraft and more recently acquiring a fleet of B737 aircraft. Then in 2005 came an opportunity to move operations from Montréal–Dorval International Airport to larger facilities at Montréal–Mirabel International Airport north of the city, which proved to be a milestone for the company’s growth. Shortly after, in 2006, the company was named one of the best-run enterprises in the province of Quebec by the National Bank of Canada. More recently, the company purchased a hangar at Aeroport Montréal Saint-Hubert/Longueuil and is the official carrier for the Montreal Alouettes football team. My interview is with Marco Prud’homme, Vice-President and shareholder of Nolinor.

Q:  You have a big story to tell, for a relatively young company. What’s next for you?

The vision that we had for the company has remained the same. We are listening to the customers’ needs, so we don’t have a long planning process or vision or strategy that we would need to change each year anyway. The way we envision growing the business is by listening to our customers’ needs and the need in the market and trying to address these. In that way we won’t have any aircraft stuck on the ground for long periods of time. So far, this has been pretty much the key to our success. We’re not romantics in the aviation field. We’re not here to prove a point. We’re not here to have a statue at the airport. We’re just here to listen to the customer and make sure that we find a solution that matches their needs, at a price point that is fair.

It took a few years to figure out exactly what we were doing. I mean, we were working really hard and doing a bunch of stuff, and at one point in time we had to sit down and ask, “Okay, the team is growing; why are we having success while other people are failing? What’s the difference?” We had to think about it and try to figure out exactly what was the key thing that we were doing differently from other people.

“We’re not romantics in the aviation field. We’re not here to prove a point.
We’re just here to listen to the customer and make sure that we find a solution that matches their needs,
at a price point that is fair”

Q:  So, I guess what you’re saying is, being self-aware is a key element of success for a management team.

Yes. Even if you work seven days a week, at one point you have to sit down and think a bit, try to understand what works, what’s not working, and so on. It’s not only for the management, but for anybody at a company. When we started at Nolinor, there were about 25 employees. We’re now over 275 and for sure, we cannot take everyone by the hand and explain to them in detail what they must do every day. You must put in place a culture – a way of doing things, or a way of dealing with issues. This gives leverage and empowers employees so that they can solve problems. Yes, sometimes people make mistakes, and other times they overachieve in what they set out to do. But, as long as the average is positive, people will learn from their mistakes and the company will grow.

Q:  This acceptance of failure is really part of setting yourself up for success, isn’t it? Would you say that acceptance of this at the management or leadership level is quite important?

I think it’s a game-changer in the sense that, if you’re trying to micromanage everybody inside the company, your growth will get stuck. There are only so many hours in a day and hours you can track, and there’s just no way you can micromanage everyone and everything. For many years, in an earlier business venture my family was involved in before Nolinor, we had placed a lot of importance on controlling every single decision in the company. We arrived at Nolinor with this mentality, but we soon discovered that this approach would not work. We needed a new approach – one that would give us more free time to think about how we can grow the business and acquire new customers, enter new markets, and initiate new projects. You cannot micromanage every single employee, otherwise you’re paying people for nothing.

Q:  Did this realization come from experience, or was it from talking with other businesspeople who had tried different approaches?

To be honest, it came from an issue. I left the company in 2008 for a few years, at a time when the company was stuck. My father [Nolinor President Jacques Prud’homme] could not keep up with being involved in every single decision, so he had to hire more people and he had to trust them – he found out on his own what I was trying to tell him for a long time. When I came back in 2013, I came to a completely different company. There was no intention on my part or his to go back to how we used to do things, between 1999 and 2007. I guess sometimes you learn from good experiences; sometimes you learn from bad experiences. For us, this situation created more potential for growth.

Q:  What you are describing is really a change in management style, in leadership style, that I’m seeing in younger companies that are growing very rapidly. We call that style agile, for lack of a better term, but it’s completely contrary to the traditional management approach that you’re taught in business school – the command-and-control type of approach to management that’s been instilled in society since the industrial age. I think it’s very relevant in this day of more complexity and rapid change. Would you say you’re riding the wave of that new trend in management?

I’m not sure we’re riding any trends. I guess what we’re doing right now is part of our personal business culture that we grew. My father started in aviation on his own – he was only 21 at the time. He didn’t have any formal management experience; his background of knowledge was that of a bush pilot. So, every single dollar he earned was through trial and error. Those things take time and I learned a lot from him. But I have a more academic background and so we did clash when we were trying to push new ideas.

Right now, we’ve been able to find a rhythm under which I would say that neither of those two extremes are better. Even when you manage in a very academic way, it doesn’t work. It has to be a mix of both, and it has to be a mix of trusting people who have the competency to actually deliver and keep following those people who need more guidance and who you need to grow. And, it all comes back to trying new things, and I guess my father was not always open to that. Two years ago, we hired a consulting firm to give us a hand in one area of the company. That required a very different mindset, because we used to close the door to any outside help. That was the first try, and we hit a home run on the first try. When you have those small successes, it changes your view of how you see things, and you’re more open to new experiences.

Q:  How would you describe the culture of Nolinor? Obviously, you and your father have developed a certain approach – how has that further permeated throughout the organization? How do employees embrace your central philosophy?

It’s not easy. I would say that there’s not a day that is the same. There’s no big plan for how we’re going to achieve our objectives. Once a situation comes up, before we react or do something crazy, we try to figure out exactly how we should do it and what would be the best course to take, and how can we create synergy with other stuff that we’ve put in place. It’s very hard and very much case by case.

There’s no clear-cut way of doing it, but I guess with an open mind, and the reality of it is that there are so many hours in a day. You don’t really have a choice but to test your folks with new challenges and then just trust them to deliver, and touch base with them from time to time to see what they’ve done and what works and what doesn’t work.

Q:  So, do you have teams within Nolinor that are formed spontaneously to deal with certain issues as they come up? Are they self-organizing, or how would you characterize the approach?

Because we’re in the aviation business we have this structure that we must follow, to meet Transport Canada regulations and all that. But that covers only the operation. It doesn’t cover managing change. It doesn’t cover managing growth. It doesn’t cover managing R&D. It’s a very specific task-oriented structure, so flights can leave on time, and that everything works properly and safely. But that’s only half the game.

The other aspect is trying to improve and grow the company, so for this there’s no real structure. It’s more like when there’s some new topic, or new project on the table, we have a look at who can deliver on that, and we trust that person to first get all the information she or he can gather on the subject. Then they give us their feedback, and we come up with a solution. We empower them to move forward, and we do the follow-up after that. It’s all a question of who’s best to do the job, not just who’s in the structure, who’s supposed to do it. So it’s very different. So the structure is there for regulatory purposes, but for anything else we try to figure out who’s the best person on the team to do it.

We used to have a lot of meetings. We don’t do that anymore, since these were not giving any results. We now have a structure where everybody works in different cells, and those cells are not really structured. They’re very flexible in the way they organize work. Most of the time we don’t have any timetable either, since every time you fix a deadline, there’s a surprise. When you have a very linear approach, something can happen that will throw you off. The way we look at it is that we know we are going to reach our goal. The date we’re going to reach it is not very important. It just puts extra stress on everybody, and it’s not a good way of going about it. We’re more into flow. Case in point, we started a project about a year ago and it started one way. However, during the process we found other opportunities, and we took a different approach that ultimately gave us results.

We therefore also never announce anything in advance. We announce only what we are able to close, what we are able to realize, and in that way, we only celebrate success. When we look at our competitors, they are eager to share what they’re working on. That’s not the way we work. We give a lot of information on what we accomplish, and don’t share much on what we’re working on.

Q:  So, you’re quite opportunistic in your approach, scanning for opportunities and then gauge whether you can make a difference?

I would say that for an important project to get closed, and delivered, there might be between 10 to 20 other projects that we’ll just cancel along the way. Opportunities come and go, and you have to make the right call at the right time. Sometimes timing is everything.

I’ll give you a past example, which is quite funny in retrospect. We were considering equipping our aircraft with iPads so that people could view movies. At one point in time, having an iPad was something rare, and when they came out we looked at that possibility. Today, it’s a no brainer that this project would have failed. Everybody has an iPad or a smartphone device on which to watch a movie. So, sometimes it’s like, we look at a project that seems interesting, but at some point, upon closer inspection and reflection somebody will raise their hand and say, “Well, there might be an easier way,” or “Do we really need to do that? What’s the ROI on that?” and “Why are we doing this? Did we fall in love with this idea, or do our customers really need that?”

We’ve put in place a system that encourages every passenger to give us feedback on the flight they’ve taken. It’s a very simple process, and we’re able to gather a bunch of information that we didn’t have before. And, with this information we can go back to our customer and say, “Oh, by the way, your passengers on this particular charter flight do not appreciate this feature, or the departure time,” or so on. We’re able to give that feedback to the customer so that a contract that may have started out in a certain way, will end up being improved with an easy solution that works, I would say, 80% of the time. And, we get this information for almost nothing – from our passengers.

It’s all a question of giving the tools to the right people, trusting them to find the right path, and not being romantic about your own ideas. This also means that if the president or I have a concept, or an idea, and once we put it on the table it’s very important to understand that we don’t own that idea anymore. If somebody comes and destroys it, or changes it, or modifies it, or finds something better, it’s very important that you don’t take it personally, because once it’s out in the open – inside the company – it’s for everyone to improve it and ownership no longer rests with any specific person. That gives a lot more leverage for people to take risks, I think.

“It’s all a question of giving the tools to the right people, trusting them to find the right path,
and not being romantic about your own ideas. This also means that [if you have an idea] and once [you]
put it on the table, it’s very important to understand that [you] don’t own that idea anymore”

Q:  So, would you say that it’s a completely open, and transparent work environment you have created that encourages creativity and ideas?

Yeah, but it’s not always easy since the natural reflex is to intervene and decide. However, if you’re able to take the time, and I guess, sleep over it, and then come back the following morning, you’ll have a more clear view on it. Everybody has the same goal – we all want Nolinor to thrive and be a success. How to achieve that can be viewed differently by other people. So, you must sit back and relax, and say, “Well, that’s completely different from what we had in mind, but it’s not a bad idea, and it’s actually cheaper, and it’s actually better,” and so on. Because if every time you cut someone off or find a way to just destroy what they’ve worked on, nobody will want to jump in and do something new. You have to give people the right feedback, so they can thrive.

Q:  It’s counter intuitive, isn’t it? Give up control to gain more control in terms of where you are going as a company.

Yeah, and this is true not only in the aviation field, but in many other fields. Sometimes you meet people, and they micromanage their team so much that you kind of wonder why they’re paying their employees a significant salary when, at the end of the day, they don’t allow them to make any decisions. If your management team or your team leaders can’t make any decisions, then you don’t really have a need for them. Their job then becomes more about managing email.

For myself, I try to send as little email as possible. I prefer to have a one-on-one chat with someone and help solve an issue quickly. I guess, if you’re sending an email for someone to confirm or share information, that’s okay. But if you’re sending an email to solve a problem, then you’re only creating a bigger problem. You need to talk with people. People do not send me any long emails. I don’t read them. I have given that scope to everybody, that if they send me an email after 9 o’clock, or if they send me an email that is more than a couple of lines long, I won’t read it. So, they don’t waste time writing long emails. If they have something to say, the door is always open, and they can just sit down, and we can talk about it, solve the issue, and move on. Because, otherwise you’re just managing email. The purpose of email was never to take up 100% of your waking hours while at work. It’s a tool, not a job.

Q:  As Nolinor grows, how do you avoid what has been called the bureaucracy trap, in that procedures are created, and systems, and so forth, to keep everyone kind of moving in a certain direction?

Well the one thing that has happened over the last few years is that we have someone inside the company who had the great idea to create an information system under which almost the entire the operation is now managed. We share all information, i.e. schedules, travel, employee profiles, flight schedules, airport information – everything is within that system that was built in-house. We have two people working full-time on upgrading the system with new features. It has cost a lot of money so far, but it has saved way more, and has made it possible for us to reduce the amount of paperwork, and bureaucracy inside Nolinor by a factor of maybe five. The system has taken a lot of time to build and now we just keep improving it. Our mindset is now more into connecting with our customer. This system is now part of our customer service, and our customer receives real-time information about their flight. That’s something that’s not been done before by any other carrier that we know of. I’m not talking about only basic information – I mean very important information. We share a lot of information with our customers. We have created a need for them and it’s automated, so we don’t have somebody sending emails to customers like we used to do in the old days.

Q:  Then, the trends that we’re seeing – more and more digitalization, automation, the use of AI – are you staying in tune with this?

We try to. If you have some spare time, you must go outside your business and see what new opportunities exist and learn about new ways of doing things. I purposely don’t attend any of our industry trade shows. I’m always into stuff that is not related to aviation, because that’s the only way to find other opportunities or ways of doing things that are not present in our own industry. You can’t just simply copy what everybody else is doing; you need to do things that nobody is doing.

Many of our management travels the world, attending different events, getting training, or learning new skills and tools. Sometimes you look at the budget and say, “Ooh, why are we spending so much money on that?” It’s not like we expect an employee to come back with a great idea every time we send them somewhere. But maybe they’ll meet someone and that someone might call him six months after with an opportunity, and so it’s very hard to figure out the ROI on that. Every time we have something that works really well, and we go back down the line to track down its origin, it comes back to somebody who was in touch and learned about something new.

We also share a lot of books. I like reading a lot, every time I read a good book – it could be on management, or marketing, or something completely different – I tend to share it and encourage others to read and share it with somebody else.

Q:  You are creating a learning environment and connecting on the edge, if you will, which is where innovation really happens. It doesn’t happen in your own little world. It happens on the exterior of your world.

That’s right, so you have to be open to that. You have to have an interest in learning and trying new stuff. I’m not interested in being aware of the new type of oil that’s going to go inside an aircraft. For me, that has zero value. It really comes down to how we manage things, how we grow customers, how we get more visibility on the Internet, how we treat people, how we train and grow our people. Those are the issues that, for me, are more complex and more interesting than what is going to be the next type of aircraft we’re going to buy. Because basically, we’re not buying aircraft to fulfil our own personal dream. We’re buying aircraft to be able to provide a service our customers want and need.

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From Drones Beware to Flight Aware with Unifly

Read Time: 12 minutes

Marc Kegelaers, CEO, Unifly – www.unifly.aero

How one company is raising the level of awareness in the airspace

As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, the airspace will become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. At the same time,  regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called UTM, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management.

In this installment of the Vantage Point interview series on innovation in aviation, I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace.

Q:  How did you initially come across the technology and the application of the technology that’s now Unifly?

My background is in aviation. I’m a flight instructor, and for 10 years I ran a flight school that trained professional pilots. While there, I started a department to train pilots for aircraft without pilots, i.e. drones. That was bringing in some publicity for the school, and at an exhibition in Asia, I came across a few young guys – air traffic controllers and a scientist – who had this idea for a traffic management system for drones. They already had a good prototype, which apparently had won some international prizes. They wanted to create a company and asked if I was prepared to be their CEO. I thought, “Well, this is a good idea!” I looked at the technology, what they were doing, and their plans and ambitions. That was in July three years ago, when I decided to join in as a CEO and shareholder. The company was started a month later, and two months after I started to work full time for Unifly. I had to unwind my function as CEO of the flight academy, so I handed that over to a successor, then started to work on the Unifly initiative full-time in October 2015.

Q:  We are experiencing a renaissance of innovation – digitalization, artificial intelligence, autonomization,…. How do you see Unifly within this broader picture of innovation and what’s going on outside of your immediate area of play?

I’d like to think that we are a ground-breaking company. We are very innovative. If you look at what is happening in the world, there’s a fourth Industrial Revolution going on whereby many activities will be driven by robotics and artificial intelligence. We are very much a part of that.

One of the key challenges that exists today is that you have this drone technology which is advancing at a very high pace – and everyone knows that drone technology and robotics are going to be very important – but specifically with drones, they are coming into a world where there is already a lot of traffic. Drones will have to comply with the regulations and rules of the aviation, so it remains safe.

The challenge we have, and I think the entire industry has, is that on one hand you have the world of aviation, which is very safety-driven, but air traffic controllers and pilots have never had to deal with drone operators. On the other hand, you have drone operators who have never been aware of the regulations and the rules that exist in aviation that make it very safe, who now want to have access to the airspace. So we have two different worlds: one relatively conservative world driven by safety, and another world which is innovative and moving very fast, not fully aware of all of the safety rules. Marrying those two totally different worlds, that’s the big challenge. But it’s now happening in aviation, and I’m sure that will happen everywhere in the world.

Look at all the challenges that are now present in the world of autonomous cars, for instance. The technology exists for cars to be driven autonomously, but how do you mix the traffic of autonomous cars with the traffic of non-autonomous cars? That’s the big challenge. In the world of aviation, we are addressing this challenge.

Q:  How do you bridge those two worlds? Does it require a change in mindset that the more traditional industries have adopted over time, or do you see the innovators having to adopt a different mindset?

It’s both. Every traditional industry has its way of doing things, which work fine. The aviation industry is very safety-minded, with good ATM (air traffic management) systems and so on and so forth, and that works fine. Now with new technology, there’s this mindset that needs to change.

Two years ago, I was at a big conference where you had CEOs of large ATM organizations, and questions were asked of the audience. One of the questions was, “Do you think technology will change the nature of your industry within the next 20 years?” I was baffled to hear one-third of the audience say, “No, we don’t think that technology will change the nature of our industry.” That, to me, says that within those classical industries, there’s still a mindset among people who do not see that there’s a lot of technology out there that can actually help them become better and automate more processes. And not only in the aviation industry – I think in many traditional industries that’s the case.

Q:  Indeed, we’ve seen the same in the car industry, until Elon Musk came along and introduced the concept of the electronic car and things started to change. Even going back to telecommunications, you had the postal, telegraph, and telephone service (or PTT) – monopoly service providers that the public was not at all happy with for the level of service and the cost. I think, only when that industry was deregulated, have we seen the kind of things that we now have, our smartphones and so forth. Do you see that kind of institutional deregulation having to take place to make real change happen in aviation? Particularly, I’m thinking about ATM and the interfacing between ATM and UTM

It will take place. What is happening is that we, as a company, are creating the technology to provide highly automated air traffic management for large amounts of autonomous devices. That’s what we’re doing. That’s where we’re going with our technology. Once you’ve done that with large numbers of autonomous drones flying in very difficult airspace, low level airspace, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that you could actually take that technology and start using it for traditional manned aviation. My guess, and I think this will happen, is that the technology we’re building now will gradually – not overnight, but gradually – find its way into the management of manned aviation.

The technology we’re using is vested in Internet technology, which makes a UTM system much more affordable and accessible than an ATM system. The technological change that happened in the telecommunications industry about 30 years ago is starting to happen in the world of aviation. The transformation will be a bit slower than what happened in telecommunications because of the safety aspect. You must be very careful that you do not innovate as rapidly as in the telecommunications industry, because you still have manned aviation transporting large numbers of people in the air. You cannot afford to have accidents. In the telecommunications industry, if you lose a data packet, well, you lose a packet. There’s no harm there. The software will say, “Oh, I lost a packet,” and it will send a new packet. In manned aviation, you cannot lose an airplane. That’s why the transition will be a bit slower, but it will come for sure.

Q:  When we look at the softer side of things – the people element – I would hazard to guess that the way Unifly is organized and how you do things is quite different from a traditional ATM technology company or an air navigation service provider. Aside from the technology, it’s also about people and how we work to get things done. I’m thinking particularly in terms of a more agile approach to software development that’s now permeating to other areas of the business. Do you see change taking place in that area as well?

Yes. To ask me purely from the perspective of the man/machine interface and the world of air traffic management, the user interfaces all assume that the person that is manning the systems has had years of training and is an ATM professional. That means it can be very complex, because the person has been trained.

Now in the world of UTM, you are interfacing with a world of people that have no knowledge, or very limited knowledge, of aviation and air traffic management. Still, you want to give them the same information as is now being used in the world of manned aviation, but in a very, very user-friendly manner. That’s one of the big transformations we are making happen.

Also, in the ATM industry or the aviation industry in general, it is expected that the number of flights will double between now and 2030. Already today we’re seeing record numbers of flights flying through the airspace, which puts a strain on the entire ATM system, because all the procedures in the world of air traffic management are manual procedures and involve people talking to people. The growth of manned aviation will require much more automation than is currently the case, and we’re building the foundation for this with UTM. So, it’s interesting times ahead.

From a development point of view, we use agile software methodology, the same methodologies as are used in developing Internet-type applications. In very short turnaround times, we use a Spring Methodology that enables us to be very quick and still have very high quality.

Q:  So, when you’ve signed up with a new client, such as an ANSP, what would be the average turnaround time to provide them with the necessary tools to start managing, or having some oversight over drones in the airspace?

From a technology point of view, not very much. The fastest we’ve done this is about six weeks. The challenge really is with the organization itself. One of the challenges that an ANSP or CAA (civil aviation authority) has is the processing of flight plans for flight approvals. There is a flight plan system that is used in manned aviation, and it involves a manual process – your flight plan gets looked at by someone, and that someone approves it. That’s based on a certain number of flights per day, per week, and so on.

Now with drones, what we’ve seen initially is that the ANSPs and the CAAs have wanted to use their existing processes of flight approvals and apply that to drones as well. But, guess what? They did not anticipate that the number of requests for drone operations would be much, much, much higher than the number for manned aviation. So, what we are providing are the tools to automate a lot of the processes within an ANSP and a CAA. However, the organization has to accept it and processes have to be created or modified so that they can work with these new tools. The delays we see, or the length of time it takes to implement our software, is not technology-related, and we already have quite a bit of technology available. It’s about presenting the technology to the client, having them work with the technology, and for their organization to define internal processes to make sure that they can use the technology as often as possible. That’s the challenge we have. Typically, we work with an ANSP, and they use our systems for a while in tests and trials – not to test and trial the technology itself, because it works – but to test and trial their internal procedures, to decide who will do what and who will have what responsibility, and how to manage the different users of the system.

Q:  Would you say that it’s then a bit of a journey for the two partners – Unifly and the client – towards solutions that are needed as part of an iterative process? In other words, there is a tendency within traditional businesses to want to buy a complete system or a complete solution as opposed to pursuing a more agile methodology of iterative testing and development. Is this mindset something you’re up against with some of the more traditional organizations you deal with?

No, in fact what we have is a complete system. But, implementing a complete system is a big, big task and we’ve created a methodology to implement the system in phases. The first phase is always, get the public informed about aviation rules and regulations, and where a drone operator can and cannot fly. That’s something that can be turned around very, very quickly. That’s usually the first phase.

The next phase is getting people to issue flight plans. We build function after function so that ultimately you get a full-blown system, possibly after a year or a year-and-a-half. The initial implementations can already be available after a few weeks. So, our experience is in fact that the ANSPs tend to want to work in a phased approach where they say, “Okay, in phase one we want to do this, then in phase two we want to do this.” The only problem with such an approach is that sometimes – as we’ve seen in other industries that have taken this approach – you can end up with piecemeal solutions. For example, just for providing information to operators they use one vendor, for tracking they use another vendor, and then for other functions, other vendors. So, they end up using isolated solutions for individual problems without thinking of the bigger picture. This usually means we have to convince an ANSP to think of the bigger picture and make sure all of the problems they want to solve are addressed in an integrated fashion rather than having a series of piecemeal solutions.

Q:  So, it’s really about the partnership relationship you build with your clients that is quite important. Having that trust there, I think would be a key issue for evolving the solutions that may need to be built. Would that be a true statement?

Yes, that’s very much a true statement. The entire process of implementing a complete UTM system with an ANSP is quite intense. Luckily we now have experience with several customers. We also are involved right now in several research programs in Europe that deal with UTM. We are seen as a company that knows about drone traffic management. We know about manned aviation because that’s the world we came from. So, we are seen by large organizations – ANSPs and CAAs – as a valuable partner that can actually bring a lot of value and knowhow to the table, helping them to tackle this quite complex UTM problem.

Q:  You’re not the only game in town, of course. There are other UTM providers. Do you see potentially, not necessarily a monopoly service provider model develop, but more of a competitive landscape where you have different systems within a certain geographic region – much like you have with the mobile phone networks where you’ve got a federation of systems able to interface with each other? Do you see that kind of a model develop eventually?

Ultimately, that will be the model, but it will take some time. The system and technology that we have developed takes that in mind. There will be in an area in a country, in a region, where there will be multiple UTM systems. So, we’ll be able to say, “Okay, I want to be a customer of A or B or C.” There will be different levels of service or different services that people can buy from different UTM service providers. Specifically, in the United States that is the model that has been chosen from day one. In Europe and other parts of the world, it’s first and foremost the ANSP that wants to make sure aviation safety is guaranteed, so they take the initiative. But ultimately, there will be a time when multiple UTM service providers will exist in a country. However, there will always be some level of oversight provided by the national aviation authority.

We must remember that the aviation authorities have the responsibility for ensuring the safety of the airspace. This responsibility does not just go away with the advent of drones. On the contrary, they now have an additional problem that they need to solve. Some ANSPs have taken the view that the only thing they want is to ensure everyone has a same exact aeronautical data, and that the ANSP does the coordination with manned aviation and all drone operator interfacing would be done by the UTM service provider. Other ANSPs have said “no” to this from the beginning, and that they want to do all of the interfacing with the drone operators as well.

Q:  It’s been an interesting ride so far, but I’m sure there have been some real challenges along the way. What are some of the lessons learned that have resulted in a different approach than originally thought?

So far, the trajectory has been quite unique in the sense that what we set out to do from the beginning, we are still thinking of doing that. One of the biggest lessons we’ve had is that initially when we started the company, we wanted to build, first of all, a product for the drone users to do planning and so on so forth, but we saw very quickly that that was not the best approach.

The best approach was that first and foremost we have to have a good, solid backbone that will be able to process large amounts of information, and be able to process that information in real time as the system for mission critical applications. Once you have that and you’ve created that as an open platform, then you start adding user interfaces. That’s something we learned after a few months. It’s having that very solid backbone – that open platform – that made us quite successful.

The other thing that we’ve learned is – listen to the customer, listen very carefully to what he wants because he’s very clever. We also learned that as a ground-breaking company – a very innovative company – you must be an evangelist. This is new technology and we’re probably the first to build a lot of experience in UTM. I think one of the roles that we have as a company is to say, “Okay, the management of drones is a very complex thing to do, but these are the ways to do it.”

Q:  You continue to get a lot of interest, I suspect, from other entrepreneurs, but also from venture capital. How does that aspect of the business look for you?

Yes, we get a lot of press, and a lot of interest from potential customers. We literally have contacts all over the world. We get contacted by VCs quite a bit who would like to invest in our company, and by universities and such, who invite me to speak about what we do, how to create an innovative company, and how we get the message out to potential customers all over the world.

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Keep Moving to Stay Relevant

Read Time: < 1 minuteDo you remember when you first learned how to ride a bike? I do….

I was almost 10 years old and most of my friends were already pros on the 2-wheeler. I did not have a bike with training wheels (long story) and kept falling over and hurting myself. It was a painful experience and I was afraid to keep trying.

Until one day my aunt insisted I give it another try. She gave me a hard push and told me to pedal hard. I did, and I kept moving!

It was a most exhilarating feeling. I was going faster than I had ever gone before. Wind in my face, passing people by, and going further than I had ever gone. Seeing new and unfamiliar places.

I was experiencing freedom and independence.

I even discovered that to slow down and stop without falling over, all I had to do was put out my two feet on the pavement until I came to a halt. I had mastered riding a bike in that one afternoon.

Now, I did fall on occasion, but that was because I broke the cardinal rule – pedal fast!

And so it is in life and in business. We must keep pedaling and moving.

In a rapidly changing world we must continually adapt and innovate to stay relevant.

We must engage in a continuous cycle of experimentation, learn from our successes and failures, and apply new-found knowledge and insight to the next round of innovation, and do so with speed.

From this comes stability and resiliance.

Albert Einstein had it right when he said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

Indeed, if you stand still, you will fall over and hurt yourself.