As a result of his research, The Point of Mobile Confluence , he was tapped as an advisor to the White House on innovative technologies and their impact on the emerging workforce. Data from that research, combined with a sincere desire to improve emergency and disaster response outcomes, ultimately led to the creation of DroneUp and DART.
He is equally passionate about his community and serves on several regional boards. Additionally, he provides financial and volunteer assistance to dozens of other organizations and is a frequent speaker at various corporate and organizational events.
Tom shared his thoughts with InterDrone on the ever-changing commercial drone space. Below is what he had to say.
InterDrone: How did you get into the commercial drone space?
TW: I’ve always been fascinated with aviation. One of my projects while in the military was related to improving the air operations center’s ability to process and integrate data collected from unmanned platforms. The drones we are operating today, even consumer products, are far more advanced than those I worked with then. That experience, however, taught me two things. First, for the foreseeable future, there will always be a man (person) in unmanned; operating, programming, observing, or maintaining them. Second, few organizations will ever own and operate all the aircraft needed for any significant response event. That knowledge, combined with my search and rescue experience, led me to start DroneUp.
What are your thoughts on its development so far (whether it be technologically, legal, or use cases)?
TW: UAS technology and accessibility have outpaced integration and regulation policies. However, I’m generally impressed with the efforts of state and federal agencies to respond to safety demands while still allowing industry progress. Faster is not always better, and the careful balance between industry innovation and public safety is critical to the long-term integration of UAS into the NAS.
What do you envision the commercial drone space to look like a year or five years from now?
TW: I expect, and hope, that next year will look like this year but with increased clarity regarding regulatory responsibilities. History has shown that emerging industries are most successful when natural regulatory compliance is achieved quickly. Combining modest self-regulation and sincere engagement with policymakers can shorten the time necessary to achieve that natural compliance stage. Of course, attempting to do both in the midst of frenetic growth and innovation always proves challenging. However, failure to do so will force government officials to reluctantly adopt broader restrictions that will ultimately constrain innovation in UAS applications. If that happens, the path to industry maturity grows a lot longer as undoing regulations is much more difficult than implementing them.
On the operational side, I predict a continued shift to crowdsourced pilot services. We are already observing that trend. Businesses are concentrating on more innovative and efficient uses of their data while subcontracting the actual collection to companies solely focused on global deployment and management of pilots.
If you had one “wish list” item to have in/happen to the industry today, what would it be?
TW: I wish there were harmony among commercial and recreational UAS operators. It only hurts our industry when influential voices use “the careless, the clueless, and the criminal” to describe recreational drone operators. In addition to our commercial and public safety services, we also provide the Responsible Community Pilot (RCP) program, which provides ongoing training to the noncommercial drone community. The RCP also requires a commitment to abide by a strict code of conduct and pilot guidelines that are more restrictive than Part 107. Thousands have achieved the RCP badge, and the numbers continue to increase for no other reason than a desire to be responsible pilots. There will always be a few bad actors, but we must remember that the hobbyists of today are the professional pilots who will fill jobs tomorrow. It is incumbent upon us to guide them, not alienate them.
You’ll be speaking at InterDrone this year. What is your topic? And aside from teaching all the attendees, what else are you most looking forward to at the show?
TW: We recently completed a complex search and recovery operation at the Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano in the desolate Mojave Desert. The terrain was rough, with air temperatures of 120 degrees and ground temperatures of 160 degrees. We utilized combined data from drones, manned aircraft, and satellites to create a 25 square-mile digital landscape and then crowd-sourced hundreds of our pilots to analyze that data. We also used geospatial wildlife analysis to track clues. It was a first-of-its-kind operation, and I’m excited to share so many valuable lessons learned. We work with pilots and partners who need pilots. The opportunity to meet with both under one roof is invaluable to our efforts of continually improving their user experience.
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