A term that might be bandied about in certain circles in Rome in a few years is “urban air mobility.” But what it is?
“Flying taxis,” says Ken Stewart, the new chief executive officer of NUAIR, the not-for-profit organization that runs the testing and proving grounds for unmanned aircraft, or drones, at Rome’s Griffiss International Airport.
“Yes, flying Ubers, yes. Or Lyfts, as the case may be.”
A couple of Chinese companies are trying to get their “urban air mobility” craft initially certified, and Uber has indicated it hopes to be up and flying in Australia in 2023, Stewart said.
“Now, it’ll be limited, obviously, and it’ll be in not-so-populated areas or in a very specific path over populated areas.
“But I think it’s going to come faster than people think. We’ve had helicopters for years. That’s the original urban air mobility. But these are all electric vehicles and part of the challenge of testing those to be adopted too is you need infrastructure, you need charging stations just like electric cars today. You can’t just take off and land anywhere unless you got a plug for it.”
Stewart was named CEO in early January for NUAIR, Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance Inc., which manages the test site owned by Oneida County in Rome at the former Griffiss Air Force Base. Stewart described some of the work at NUAIR last week in an interview with the Daily Sentinel.
The Rome operations are part of a 50-mile corridor between Griffiss and Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport that is one of six federally designated corridors in the United States for testing drones and developing control and commercialization systems using them. The corridor is equipped with radar along the corridor that allows situational awareness at the low altitude, below 400 feet, where most drones operate, and features an eight-by-four-mile section of airspace between Griffiss and the state emergency training center in Oriskany at the former county airport. In addition, the county, with state aid, is building a controlled-environment, largely indoor venue for drone development using a former Air Force hangar at Griffiss.
Stewart plans to relocate soon to Syracuse from Boston, where he most recently was CEO of AiRXOS (pronounced “air-ose”), a part of GE Aviation. Before that, his background was mostly in telecommunications. Among other things, he worked on developing a way for companies to get radio spectrum on demand rather than having to use the lengthy licensing process.
“Spectrum is much like air space: you want to access it and manage it, and so the GE ventures people approached me and said hey we’re building this thing called UTM, and you should come join. I’m like, ‘I’m not an aviator. Not my space.’ Bt they said, no it’s the same thing. It’s just these radios will move through the air.”
Stewart was familiar with NUAIR from his work with AiRXOS. NUAIR provides not only testing but validation to help drone industry developers prove their ideas work — such as safety systems that regulators require. One program last year involved various parachute systems. Others involved validating drones’ ability to identify themselves and share identifying information with one another and their pilots. Another major project helped law enforcement agencies coordinate with one another.
While human-carrying drones are on the horizon, other areas of development are farther along in the industry.
One area is in large-scale inspection, Stewart said. Power transmission lines or pipelines must be regularly inspected closely, and helicopters can do it, but they’re expensive and dangerous. Drones can do it, but to be economical at scale, they may need a longer flight time than is now common, about 30 minutes for most battery-powered craft. And they need to go beyond the ground-based remote pilot’s line of site, which brings on issues such as how to monitor things around it like birds, helicopters or other drones.
Similarly, when in farming areas there may be piloted aircraft without the standard radio beacons in other planes and which drone networks may use to avoid other craft.
“When we fly drones there, we have to be concerned about those aircraft because we have to have a way to see them.”
If equipped with LIDAR — radar except with light instead of radio waves — drones can be used to inspect runways for potentially dangerous debris. .
“If you can fly a drone right down a runway with a LIDAR sensor and it can almost detect a quarter sitting on top of the runway,” Stewart said.
And there is perhaps the most well-publicized emerging drone area, package delivery. Many companies are getting their particular type of craft certified by regulatory authorities, but the challenge is in building a system to ensure safety. Flying beyond the pilot’s line or sight or higher than 400 feet requires a waiver, which is expensive and time consuming to get.
“The safety cases are very complex. Our very first safety case to do that big 70-pound drone was 600 pages. It’s 10 to the negative ninth safety. It’s why the U.S. has the safest air space is the world.”
But Stewart is bullish on the potential. Drones may prove especially effective in time-sensitive deliveries in congested big metro areas. He recalled hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area where he used to live that performed lung transplants that were just a few miles apart.
“To do this 7 miles in a car at 5 o’clock could take you an hour and 15 minutes, but the drone can do it in five minutes.”
Another emerging application is in giant warehouses and distribution centers, where unmanned craft can be used to check inventory or move materials or products
bringing in companies
“We we’re already expanding the adoption of the drones, but the question is how do you get commercialization to happen? If we can solve package delivery, medical delivery, here within our corridor then we can learn what it takes to expand it across the whole state.”
Want to work in the drone industry?
The Sentinel asked Stewart what skills or areas of expertise might help land a job in the unmanned aircraft industry. Among his suggestions:
Learn aviation and electromechanical technology. But also consider artificial intelligence, and autonomous capacity software development
Consider pursuing certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly a drone commercially, known as a part 107 license. Many people have done so and begun providing services such as real estate photography.