One thing that everyone can agree upon is that there’s been a lot happening in the drone industry in the last few weeks. One of the big news pieces has been the introduction of the LAANC (Low Altitude Airspace Notification Capability) system in a limited form. The LAANC system could solve a major problem for drone operators, eliminating some of the significant time delays between request and approval of airspace authorizations- which often mean that operators trying to follow the rules miss out on lucrative jobs while waiting.
The current system has become such a problem for the FAA that the agency petitioned OMB to allow them to move testing of the LAANC solution forward on an emergency basis. Verizon-owned drone company Skyward announced that they had been chosen as the first FAA-approved provider of the solution, which would be available in a limited form – serving only a few regions currently, with the hope to expand over the course of what the FAA refers to as a “prototype evaluation.”
The LAANC solution was developed in collaboration with a group of 12 industry partners, chosen by the FAA based on the results of a publicly posted request for information (RFI.) The group worked with the government agency to develop the solution and is now testing it. The FAA keeps a public list of those companies who are authorized currently to offer the solution on this test basis: the list at this time includes only AirMap and Skyward, both members of the committee.
Competitors in the drone operations space complain, however, that Skyward has been placed in an unfairly advantageous position in the industry by being allowed to publicize their role. In a blog post published on the company website, Kittyhawk co-founder Joshua Ziering said that Skyward’s leveraging of their role in marketing materials brought the integrity of the company into question.
Ziering , and his co-founder Jonathan Hegranes, don’t object to the concept of government/industry collaboration, which they see as a beneficial tool to moving drone regulation forward. “The problem isn’t the FAA leveraging private industry,” writes Ziering. “Industry, at least one of the twelve, is leveraging the FAA.”
“LAANC has been in the works for many years – and it’s going to be a game-changer. We are really excited to have it come out and open up the airspace,” Hegranes tells DRONELIFE. Hegranes says that the industry partnership made sense to help the resource-constrained FAA to get the project off the ground. But he feels that allowing the companies involved to utilize their participation to gain a competitive advantage is an issue that the industry and consumers need to be aware of. “The problem and the disconnect come when the FAA allows private companies to market and gain market share and revenue from this.”
“The fact that Verizon Skyward is doing daily blog posts, tweets, and webinars is giving them a huge advantage,” he says. “… If you are going to have a private closed beta, that needs to be done in a way that maintains a level playing field.”
Additionally, says Hegranes, they’d like to see the FAA define the process for other vendors who hope to get approval – before the “evaluation” period is over. “We’d also like to know what the process is to get approved – let companies start that process now, so that they can be ready to turn it on when the platform is live,” he says, pointing out that not releasing that process early could mean that committee members have an advantage of months of development over other vendors.
Skyward has responded to the criticism by saying that any company approved to offer new functionality would have announced the achievement. “Skyward were the first to be approved and the first to have our customers access controlled airspace through LAANC – I would imagine if others were in the same position they’d be proud to say that,” writes Skyward’s Director of Strategy, Matt Fanelli. “It took tremendous work from our talented engineers and we’re proud that they received fast technical approval from the FAA. We won’t shy away from that sentiment. Our team works tirelessly to make commercial drone operations safe and efficient for everyone, and we’re proud of that effort.”
Fanelli refutes the claim that the company has obtained an unfair position, pointing out that Skyward is not the only vendor approved to offer the solution. “Second, there are other approved LAANC vendors, and the FAA expects more providers to come online in the coming weeks,” says Fanelli, commenting that all of the providers were chosen after a response to a publicly posted RFI.
In response to Ziering’s writing that “Skyward is working to create a closed environment good for their company,” the company denies that this is the case, pointing out that LAANC will become a publicly available platform. “…we maintain our commitment to engage with industry leaders to enable these common standards, and this is exactly what LAANC does,” writes Fanelli. “Much like our work at the Global UTM Association, the Drone Advisory Committee, the FAA Remote ID ARC, and ICAO, Skyward responded to the public LAANC request for information to continue to participate in public and private partnerships that enable the industry to open up airspace.”
The FAA, who has relied more heavily on industry partnerships in the last two years to help with drone integration, did not respond to a request for comment.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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