LAANC Fact Check: You’ve Heard the Spin, Now Learn the Truth

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The Blue Diamond Gallery cc Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

Integrity. It’s central to everything we do at Kittyhawk. Whether it’s our professional standards, our data, or our marketing, we infuse everything we do with integrity. It’s in our DNA, and it’s a core value that’s going to help drive the drone industry forward. That’s why it’s so disappointing when a publicly traded company that is privileged to be in the LAANC (Low Altitude Airspace Notification Capability) pilot program doesn’t share those values and would rather spin half-truths at the detriment to the program and the greater drone ecosystem.

The last few days have been a big one for the drone industry. We’ve seen big waivers issued for flights over people (Congratulations CNN!), we’ve seen the LAPD decide to roll out their drone program. However, one piece of news I keep seeing is really troubling: “Controlled Airspace Open to Commercial Drone Operations With Skyward” … “Skyward has announced that they will provide the service as an FAA-approved vendor of the new Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).”

This is a marketing half-truth. And the public deserves to know the real story. I suppose we’ve grown to expect this level of shadiness with our cell phone bills or “can you hear me now” marketing, but when it comes to the national airspace we should all hold ourselves to the highest of standards. As drone operations providers, we need to hold ourselves to the highest standards. Lest we not forget, Verizon is same company that lobbied Congress to roll back net-neutrality laws that prevent them from using your private browsing data to sell advertising. I would argue this is not the definition of “integrity.”

While it may sound like Verizon-owned Skyward is blazing a trail of innovation by being “the first” to offer LAANC authorizations, they’re simply participating in a closed-beta test with a limited number of LAANC areas. The FAA may decide that the program is not meeting their goals and shut the whole thing down. While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the FAA.

The FAA has allowed 12 companies into the initial working group to help create LAANC. This is a sensible way to allow private industry to remove some of the burden drones have put on a public entity. Leveraging private industry’s talents is a way to accelerate progress in a traditionally slow moving vertical, particularly at a resource constrained agency like the FAA. Their position is not an enviable one.

The problem isn’t the FAA leveraging private industry. Industry, at least one of the twelve, is leveraging the FAA. LAANC is doing its beta test at 10 regions this fall. However, the FAA has stated that the only companies that will be able to offer authorizations at those 10 regions are the 12 companies that were a part of the initial working group. That sounds an awful lot like the FAA picking winners and king-making. Giving certain companies months of exclusive access to a precious resource is at best anti-competitive.

The FAA, for their part, doesn’t necessarily understand how competitive the drone industry is. They’ve likely never dealt with a bunch of venture-backed companies moving at the pace of Silicon Valley, trying to innovate and disrupt stagnant publicly traded companies. What sounds like a “small 3 month” trial to the FAA is about 7 years in “start up time.”

The net effect of this is marketing efforts like those being spearheaded by Skyward implying as if they’re able to offer the full capabilities of LAANC when in reality, they’re part of a closed-group of folks, hand selected by the FAA to offer authorizations at a limited number of regions.

When Skyward was first started trying to compete with Kittyhawk, I read something particularly striking their CEO Jonathan Evans said while talking about his leadership at GUTMA (An international UTM organization), “We will make it easier and less expensive to bring customized solutions to the market, as the association is based on the time-tested principle of cooperating on standards and competing on products.” (Emphasis mine)

I find it particularly disappointing that the FAA is creating an environment where companies have exclusive access to a facet of the national airspace. I find it even more disappointing that some of those companies are taking advantage of that to create disingenuous marketing messages.

It doesn’t bode well for your product if you need to hide behind a set of closed standards and market it as though you’ve got exclusive access to a public entity. While Skyward is working to create a closed environment good for their company, Kittyhawk is working to create an open ecosystem that empowers the commercial drone industry. As founding members of the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team, Kittyhawk spends company resources to send representatives to meetings and working groups to contribute back to the industry and help make it safer for everyone.

When, and if, the LAANC program is in production and open to more than the initial 12 companies that helped shape it, Kittyhawk will be one of many to have full LAANC integration capabilities.

Until then, we’ll be continuing to market, act, and build with integrity just like we always have.

Joshua Ziering

Joshua Ziering is the Chief Pilot of Kittyhawk. He is an FAA certified drone pilot with thousands of hours flying everything from taco blimps to 40 lb aerobatic aircraft to 9 foot helicopters. Now, he spends his days helping others manage their flight safety culture and drone operations at Kittyhawk.

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