During the energetic closing day of Amsterdam Drone Week, Eszter Kovacs, our co-founder and CEO, engaged in an exclusive interview with Michele Merkle, Director of the Air Navigation Bureau at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). 

Their discussion explored the evolving integration of traditional aviation with the rapidly expanding sectors of unmanned aircraft and advanced air mobility. This conversation highlighted ICAO's strategic role in facilitating this integration through the development of new global standards for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). Michele highlighted the critical balance between fostering innovation and maintaining rigorous safety standards, revealing ICAO's recent initiatives like the introduction of comprehensive RPAS frameworks aimed at ensuring safe and efficient global airspace management. This dialogue illustrated the challenges and opportunities at the forefront of aviation technology, marking a key moment for the future of international air travel.

Introduction to Michele Merkle and ICAO's Mission

Michele Merkle leads the efforts at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to develop aviation standards and recommended practices as their director of the air navigation bureau, playing an essential role as aviation continues to evolve with emerging technologies. Celebrating its 80th anniversary, ICAO ensures global cooperation to make aviation safe, secure, and sustainable. As Michele explained in the interview, from licensing pilots to certifying aircraft, ICAO's guidelines are foundational to global aviation safety and interoperability.

ICAO is a United Nations agency that facilitates global air travel by helping its 193 member countries to cooperatively share their skies, thereby benefiting mutually. Established in 1944, ICAO has been instrumental in creating a rapid and reliable network of global air mobility that connects families, cultures, and businesses worldwide, promoting sustainable growth and socio-economic prosperity.

As we advance into an era characterized by significant digitization and innovative flight technologies, the relevance of ICAO's expert support and technical guidance has become more critical than ever. The organization is actively innovating and expanding its partnerships among UN bodies and technical stakeholders to spearhead a strategic global vision and deliver effective, sustainable solutions.

ICAO's new framework for remotely piloted aircraft systems

A significant focus of our discussion was ICAO's recent framework for international RPAS operations. This framework sets the foundational standards and practices for operational safety, including pilot licensing and airworthiness requirements. Michele underlined the necessity of these standards in paving the way for safe and regulated unmanned aircraft operations globally.

On April 5, 2024, ICAO adopted new aviation Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), which enhance safety and accelerate the transformation of the global air navigation system, including the integration of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). According to the President of the ICAO Council, Salvatore Sciacchitano, these steps are crucial for the sustainable development of aviation, ensuring a performance-driven and service-oriented global air navigation system.

During its 231st Session, the Council of ICAO approved amendments to 15 of the 19 Annexes to the Convention on International Civil Aviation and introduced a new “Procedure for Air Navigation Services (PANS) on Information Management”. 

The adoption of the new Part IV International Operations — Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems to Annex 6 – Operation of Aircraft, lays down the basic building blocks for a regulatory framework that enables the international operation of RPAS. These include the requirement for RPAS operators to hold a specific operator certificate (ROC), akin to the traditional air operator certificate (AOC).

The regulatory framework now also includes provisions for remote pilot licenses, RPAS-specific airworthiness requirements, and C2 Links frequency bands, procedures, and systems. These provisions are designed to meet three key requirements for international air navigation: a remote pilot license, a certificate of airworthiness, and an RPAS operator certificate.

ICAO Secretary General, Juan Carlos Salazar, highlighted the key role of these new standards in enhancing the accuracy and consistency of flight information, which is crucial for the optimization of air routes and networks, thus contributing to a reduction in aviation CO2 emissions. The “Flight and Flow — Information for a Collaborative Environment” (FF-ICE) concept is a key advancement towards establishing a fully collaborative environment that enables the sharing and optimization of flight trajectories at every stage of flight.

Additionally, the Council has tackled safety issues such as the problem of multiple aircraft being assigned identical 24-bit aircraft addresses, leading to inaccuracies in air-ground and air-air surveillance systems. Updates to helicopter chart development standards for performance-based navigation further enhance the safety of helicopter operations.

ICAO's enhancements in data gathering and sharing are crucial for accident prevention and effective response. The new Standards complete the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS), which includes enhancements to aircraft tracking and distress systems. The expansion of the Flight Data Analysis Programme (FDAP) now covers most large commercial air transport aeroplanes, aiming to identify precursor events and facilitate proactive safety management.

New investigation standards require accident investigation authorities to inform the public about progress earlier and more frequently, ultimately providing the final report in an electronic format to ICAO for improved access and data analysis. The Council also decided to enhance current search and rescue (SAR) SARPs to expedite response times, facilitate assistance from other States during operations, reduce risks to personnel at accident sites, and provide better information to rescue coordination centres.

The balancing act: innovation and safety

In our discussion, Michele illuminated the delicate balance ICAO must maintain between fostering cutting-edge technological advancements and upholding the stringent safety standards that define global aviation. This balance is crucial as the airspace becomes increasingly crowded with both manned and unmanned vehicles, each introducing new dynamics to aviation management.

ICAO's role extends beyond merely setting regulations; it actively facilitates a collaborative environment where innovation can thrive within the parameters of safety. For instance, Michele highlighted how ICAO encourages the integration of emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning within air traffic management systems, provided they enhance safety and operational efficiency.

Furthermore, Michele shared the organization's efforts to support startups and innovators in the aviation space. By offering guidance on navigating the complex regulatory landscape, ICAO helps new entrants align their innovative solutions with international safety norms, thus speeding up the time it takes for new technologies to move from concept to implementation without compromising the integrity of global aviation standards.

Michele also pointed out that safety is not just about preventing accidents but also about building resilience into the aviation ecosystem to handle new challenges effectively. This involves rigorous testing and validation processes, continuous improvement of operational procedures, and the proactive management of any potential risks associated with new technologies or procedures.

Finally, Michele underlined the importance of global cooperation and data sharing in achieving these goals. By fostering an environment where countries and companies share information and best practices, ICAO helps ensure that innovations can be safely integrated across different regions and regulatory environments, thereby supporting the overall advancement of the aviation industry while safeguarding its robust safety culture.

Encouraging the next generation

In a particularly inspiring segment, Michele recounted her journey from an engineer specializing in human factors engineering to a leader in global aviation policy. Her path through technical challenges and management roles illustrates the diverse career opportunities in aviation, especially for women. She highlighted how her career trajectory not only showcases what is possible for women in aviation but also serves as an inspiring example for the next generation of female engineers and leaders. Her journey from a systems engineer to a key policy maker at ICAO demonstrates the vital contributions women can make in highly technical and influential roles.

Michele stressed the need for targeted initiatives to encourage more women to enter and thrive in the aviation industry. She pointed out that mentorship programs, internships, and scholarships specifically tailored for women can provide the necessary support and opportunities for young females to pursue careers in aviation. These programs help demystify the industry, making it more accessible and appealing to a broader demographic.

Additionally, Michele touched on the importance of visibility. She noted that seeing women in leadership roles within aviation not only challenges the traditional norms but also inspires young women by showing them that these career paths are indeed possible. Michele encouraged current leaders in the industry to actively participate in outreach and education efforts, speaking at schools and universities to ignite interest and passion for aviation among young students.

Furthermore, Michele called for a cultural shift within the aviation sector to more fully embrace and integrate diversity in its workforce. She advocated for policies that promote gender equality and support work-life balance, which can help retain talented women in the industry. By fostering an inclusive environment that welcomes diverse perspectives, the aviation industry can innovate and adapt more effectively in the face of future challenges.

Michele concluded this segment with a personal anecdote about the challenges she faced and overcame, reinforcing that perseverance and resilience are crucial. She encouraged young women to be bold, to never shy away from asking questions, seeking help, and taking on new challenges. Michele's narrative is not just her own but a beacon for future generations, illuminating the pathways to leadership and success in aviation.

Looking forward: advice to startups

To close, Michele offered sage advice to startups in the aviation sector. The key takeaway? Align with ICAO's high safety standards and be realistic about the challenges of entering the aviation industry. 

Michele underscored that startups should view stringent aviation regulations not just as barriers but as opportunities to innovate within a framework that prioritizes safety and efficiency. Understanding and integrating into these regulatory environments are not merely compliance tasks but crucial steps toward securing a startup’s long-term viability and success in the aviation sector.

Startups must cultivate a robust safety culture from the outset. This foundational approach goes beyond adhering to existing standards; it involves actively contributing to the evolution of global safety practices. She encouraged startups to engage with regulatory bodies like ICAO proactively, participate in discussions and workshops, and stay ahead of regulatory changes.

With the global push towards sustainability, Michele highlighted the importance of developing solutions that contribute to the aviation industry’s environmental goals, such as reducing carbon emissions and enhancing energy efficiency. She advised startups to consider how their innovations could support these broader objectives, thereby aligning their business models with global sustainability efforts.

Michele suggested that startups invest in technology not only for product development but also to streamline compliance and enhance operational efficiencies. Tools that help manage documentation, track compliance changes, and automate safety checks can significantly reduce overheads and improve responsiveness to regulatory shifts.

Understanding that the aviation industry is vast and complex, Michele advised startups to seek partnerships with established industry players. These relationships can provide startups with critical insights, increased credibility, and access to a broader network of industry contacts. Collaboration can also open doors to pilot projects and joint ventures that might otherwise be out of reach for emerging companies.

Finally, Michele stressed the importance of designing business processes and technologies that are scalable. As startups grow and expand their operations internationally, the ability to adapt to various regulatory environments quickly and efficiently becomes invaluable. Startups should plan their growth strategies with scalability in mind, ensuring that they can meet increased demands and regulatory requirements without compromising on safety or operational integrity.

By adhering to these guidelines, startups in the aviation sector can navigate the complex landscape more effectively, ensuring that they not only meet the rigorous demands of today’s aviation industry but also contribute to its future direction and standards.

As we wrapped up our conversation, it was clear that the intersection of traditional aviation with new technologies like unmanned aircraft presents both challenges and vast opportunities. Michele Merkle's insights not only deepened our understanding of ICAO's pivotal role in shaping this future but also highlighted the critical need for collaboration, innovation, and strict adherence to safety standards to propel the industry forward.

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