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When will the societal acceptance of drones happen?


Back in 2020 when DroneTalks was less than a year old, we had the chance to speak with Lia Reich from Wing about the societal acceptance of drones. During the interview, she explained to us how the Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) ecosystem embodies not only embodies the future of the aviation industry, but it also encapsulates digital and collaborative frameworks. UTM systems are state-of-the-art and facilitate an incredibly diverse range of communication between drone operators. These systems allow them to communicate, coordinate and safely navigate their aircraft in crowded airspaces at a scale that was previously thought unimaginable.

We’re at the beginning of a new era for technology and transportation; and, we can only begin to understand and anticipate the significant evolution that’s happening in the UTM ecosystem. As we begin to move towards a time of widespread societal acceptance for drones, it’s important to establish communication frameworks in advance for others outside of the drone ecosystem who need an easily accessible understanding of these new technologies.

Lia explained that one powerful analogy can be used to explain the approach Wing is using, which is the idea of a ground traffic management system. The concept is already familiar to most people, and it shows how regulators, who are already familiar with ground traffic laws, can begin to understand the context of implementing a systematic framework to regulate low-level airspace traffic for drones. Just as we’ve developed highway systems for drones that can simultaneously accommodate many different types of cars and vehicles, these new low-level airspaces (U-space airspaces) can simultaneously accommodate many different types of drones. If we continue with this analogy, we see that it even touches on the safety standards of car manufacturers, who have to fulfil strict safety requirements before selling their product on a commercial level, which will be the same with drones as well. 

It’s important to make sure that the principles of UTM and drone operations are also effectively and simply communicated to societies in general, as this technological shift will change the way many industries and communities in general function. While everyone in the drone community understands the divide between drones for good and those that aren’t, many people outside of our industry don’t see this divide as clearly as we do. The lack of clarity means an agricultural drone watering a field might be perceived as a potential threat, which is why it’s incredibly important to invest in clear and effective communication strategies before potentially damaging problems arise. 

The drone industry needs to begin to speak to a wider audience instead of speaking in a closed community, which involves more storytelling and the ability to draw parallels like we did above when we spoke about creating ground traffic regulations for vehicles and how these resemble the regulations that will be created in low-level airspaces for drones. One important thing for drone leaders to keep in mind is that people outside of the drone industry will need to understand the basics, which means we’ll need to break down complex ideas into digestible concepts that resonate with those unfamiliar with our processes and terminology.

This is especially important when it comes to something as complex as Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) systems. 

Virginia FAA trials featuring Wing, an alphabet company

In August 2022, Virginia Tech's research unit, which specialises in Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) traffic management (UTM), started its second phase of trials under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The aim of the project is to enhance efforts towards creating safe, effective and dependable systems to manage multiple drones operating within the same airspace. According to recent news reports, this significant undertaking marks the sixth federal contract Virginia Tech has secured to further research into drone air traffic networks.

The goal is to ensure data from varied sources are smoothly relayed across different software and hardware platforms from individual companies. Some of the key partners include ANRA Technologies, Collins, OneSky, Google’s drone delivery arm Wing, Airspacelink, ATA LLC, Raytheon, and Streamline Designs. Both FAA and NASA are providing oversight and consultative support to this initiative.

The focus of these trials isn't just on the functionality of the UTM, but also its practical application. As John Coggin, MAAP associate director noted, "Research like this, that will help enable implementation in a way that's evidence-based and prioritizes safety, is how we're going to be able to navigate that big gray area between 'don't need' and 'must have.'" 

The project will concentrate on key aspects like public safety, medical drone flights, responsibly providing access to UAVs information, and leveraging data for security and law enforcement. Trial activities will take place across several sites including Kentland Farms' rural test site, two facilities in urban Corpus Christi, and areas of Wing’s Christianville, VA commercial drone delivery operation.

How can the drone industry create better collaborations?

One of the foremost challenges in the Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) sector is the multitude of diverse stakeholders involved. The dialogue needs to effectively engage regulators, drone operators of varying kinds, Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), and government officials. These different audiences, each with their unique perspectives and interests, have to be taken into account when formulating and fostering new collaborations in the drone industry.

While the diversity of these stakeholders can add layers of complexity to discussions and decision-making, a thoughtful and targeted approach to communication can greatly facilitate this process. The important thing to remember is that while the fundamental message should remain consistent, its delivery needs to be tailored to the specific audience. For instance, the jargon and technical specifics that may resonate with drone operators might not be the most effective way to engage with regulators or government officials. 

One of the key objectives of the drone industry is to then empower regulators to efficiently communicate within their communities about drones. This involves providing them with the necessary tools and information to help them understand the intricacies of the industry and then articulate them effectively to their respective audiences. This could involve creating specially designed training programmes, informational resources and communication guides.

What’s the next step for Wing?

Lia told us that, for Wing, the upcoming phase of strategic growth is all about connecting more deeply with the drone operator community. There's clear evidence that businesses are recognising the utility of drones as tools for multiple use cases in a trend towards the Aerial IoT, as demonstrated by the success of drone software and German database companies, which reported their most profitable year yet in 2020. This positive trend suggests a rising demand for drone pilots, which creates the corresponding need to help educate wider communities as drones become an ever-increasing presence in our lives. 

Wing’s mission is to democratise the joy and benefits of aviation. The company is investing in initiatives aimed at broadening access to drone technology and its advantages, regardless of the operator's background or level of experience. Whether it's enhancing delivery systems in logistics, supporting conservation efforts, or enabling breathtaking aerial photography, Wing is keen on ensuring that more people can tap into the immense potential that drone technology offers.

At its heart, Wing’s endeavour is not only about the widespread adoption of drones but about cultivating a sense of shared community and inclusive growth. It’s about fostering a drone culture where everyone can contribute to, and benefit from, the exciting advancements in the industry. By nurturing the drone operator community, Wing aims to pave the way for a future where drones are an integral part of our everyday lives.

About Lia Reich

Lia Reich had the chance to join the drone industry without any prior background in aviation. She got a new perspective by joining a drone delivery company that emphasised the positive aspects in terms of improved access, lower emissions, and increased safety. 

She worked with regulators, advocacy groups, community members, and the media to promote the acceptance, awareness, and adoption of drone technology. She was a member of the Senior Team at Wing. In addition to that, she was in charge of leading Global Communications and a division of the Marketing team, supporting government affairs and reporting to Wing's CMO.

She helped a drone technology firm collect more than $100 million over the course of four rounds of funding before she joined Wing. Lia served as the Vice President and Head of Marketing and Communications, and her marketing and public relations strategy helped the company become an industry leader. 

About Wing

Wing is an alphabet company founded in 2012. They offer solutions for delivery services through the use of drone technology. Their services include an advanced fleet of self-navigating, lightweight delivery, on-demand delivery and last-mile delivery. 

With a strong focus on safety, sustainability, and seamless integration with existing delivery methods, Wing's drone delivery system offers a leading approach to efficient and eco-friendly logistics. Having operations in Australia, America and Europe, Wing is among the companies aiming to broaden their market presence on a global scale.

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