New BVLOS rules, autonomous flights at scale among industry’s biggest challenges, says new AgEagle CEO and industry veteran Brandon Torres Declet in this DRONELIFE exclusive interview.
By Jim Magill
Members from all segments of the drone industry should work together in concert with regulators to help craft rules to usher in the next phase of commercial drone operations, the newly appointed CEO of AgEagle said.
Brandon Torres Declet, who was named to his current position on May 24, said industry representatives need to express their views to the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration on pending rules that would allow commercial drone operators to fly large-scale beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.
“A lot of what we’ve heard over the last couple of years is from press reports around those type of operations happening, but rarely do we hear of those operations happening on a daily, weekly or monthly basis,” Torres Declet said. “And that is where we need to go ultimately.”
Torres Declet, who last January was appointed to the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), has had extensive experience in the development of the commercial drone industry in the private sector, as well as helping to craft drone regulations through various positions he has held in the public sector. He said the biggest trend he has seen in the evolution of the drone industry has been the development of technology to allow drones to perform complex tasks safely, without a human directly controlling them.
“I do believe that for the foreseeable future, the human will always be in the loop and available if needed,” he said. “But the technology has gotten sophisticated enough that you can simply press a button and most drones commercially available today will fly that route, collect the data needed and return home safely.”
The biggest barrier to conducting autonomous drone operations at scale is “not so much a matter of technology; it’s a matter of regulation,” Torres Declet said.
“In order to move to beyond VLOS regulations faster, we need to be doing a better job as an industry of really laying out the safety case for it and ensuring that we’re sharing that data with the FAA,” he said.
In advocating for loosening of the FAA’s current strict drone operation rules, Torres Declet said there’s an alignment of interests between the different segments of the drone industry, from hardware manufacturers to software developers.
“The hardware manufacturers, whether Skydio or DJI, want to sell more drones,” he said.
“For the software providers, it’s kind of the same thing, whether it’s AirMap, Measure or AgEagle,” Torres Declet said. “We want more customers to have licenses for our software so they can manage those fleets to fly those aircraft.”
Another trend that will influence the future direction of the drone industry will involve developing the technology needed to put the vast volumes of data being collected by drones to beneficial use in the future.
“There’s a vast value in a lot of the data that has been collected and that is untapped, either in individual industries or across different applications,” Torres Declet said. He said drone-collected data, properly store and made available for future use, could be used to help industries better manage their large-scale assets over time.
For example, the operator of a wind farm could compare data collected from the inspection of a wind turbine performed in 2021 with that collected from an inspection of the same piece of equipment two years from now. “You see how that asset ages and where the necessary repairs need to be made. That information can be valuable not only for that single wind turbine but for owners of large wind-turbine operations,” he said.
Another likely significant industry trend will involve drone companies striving to achieve vertical integration across many UAV industry segments. “One of the biggest challenges to the drone industry is: How do we present to the customers a complete solution?” Torres Declet said. “We know that you have a lot of choice in the market, but do you really want to have a dozen different vendors for your drone program or is it easier to come to just one?”
AgEagle offers a good example of a company that has grown beyond its original narrow market focus to provide its customers with a one-stop shop for all their drone-related needs, Torres Declet said.
Founded in 2010 as a manufacturer of drones used in agricultural applications, the company has broadened its focus over time through a series of acquisitions “to something that’s stretched beyond the agricultural space to a more end-to-end solution, with drones, software and sensors across a number of different applications,” he said.
Torres Declet himself came from one of those acquired companies, Measure, an award-winning aerial intelligence company, which Torres Declet founded in 2014 and which AgEagle bought in April.
Prior to founding Measure, Torres Declet established and managed the Defense and Homeland Security government relations practice at McAllister & Quinn, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. His career in public service includes serving in senior positions for the New York Police Department, the U.S. Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees, and the House Homeland Security Committee.
He also served as counsel on Capitol Hill to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Jane Harman and coordinated drone policy for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Torres Declet also served on the UAS Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee and has authored a Section 333 exemption.
While as an industry leader, Torres Declet said he would prefer that the FAA quickly adopt more liberal regulations regarding BVLOS flights and autonomous drone operations at industrial scale, his public sector experience leads him to realize that government bureaucracy proceeds at its own pace, and that this is probably for the best, from a public safety standpoint.
“Having worked in government, I know there’s a speed of government and a speed of business.”