Our CEO, Lorenzo Murzilli, sat down and spoke with Jim Barry and Luka Tomljenovic in their podcast the Vertical Space, which covers the intersection of technology and flight. It’s an especially well-loved podcast for aviation industry leaders as they cover topics related to building businesses in the field of air mobility.
In this article, we’ll go over a few of the main topics that were touched upon during the podcast and what our answers were.
The early stages of the drone industry
While the drone industry is still relatively immature in terms of its foundation, many drone companies are currently trying to tackle large and complex topics typically only seen in more mature industries like automotive or finance. The most common one is how a newly founded drone company can scale their business operations quickly.
Many of the problems come from the engineering teams in smaller drone start-up environments attempting to create and scale products aimed at the current drone ecosystem. The problem with this is really the mentality behind how they think since drone operations are much more structured and complex than the typical start-up mentality of “move fast and break things”.
The engineering teams have to go through significant transformations in how they think. Along this journey of creating a drone start-up, they need to unlearn the original skills that got them into a position as a manager or senior engineer at a drone start-up. These skills will not lead them necessarily to success in this industry.
That transformation is challenging.
Many blame the regulations for the challenges presented to them, but after working for more than 10 years helping to develop the regulatory framework in Europe, our CEO Lorenzo Murzilli points to this mentality to explain why many of these new start-ups are failing to understand the need for this level of complexity.
Things can only be made so simple before they’re no longer doing the job we created them to do through these regulations: public safety.
The state of the drone market in Europe today
The European framework for the drone industry is creating a lot of buzz recently with major organisations like Spright looking to develop its operation in Europe instead of in the United States where they’re based. We interviewed Justin Steinke, Senior Vice President of Commercial Business at Spright with our partners at DroneTalks during the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas in 2022.
What makes Spright an interesting case is that they’re aiming for bVLOS operations where drones are flying beyond the visual line of sight. In Europe, bVLOS is easier to achieve because there are a set of regulations currently in place to help guide organisations to begin implementing actual aerial missions with drones.
For organisations based in the United States who are in the open category or are in the Part 107 environment, they tend to prefer to stay in the United States instead of expanding to Europe because they see these features as more advantageous. In Europe, the open category has different classifications and subcategories that, in turn, have different requirements, which is daunting for those looking at them for the first time.
That makes the question of developing your operations in Europe or in the United States pretty simple. Do you plan on having complex, bVLOS operations? Then you’d be better off in Europe.
Current drone use cases in Europe and the United States
Because regulations are still changing and continue to be relatively complex to navigate, there are a few use cases for drone operations that have already been approved through regulatory agencies. These agencies build the standard expectations for how these drones will be used and designed, which makes implementation much faster since the aviation authorities know what to expect from them.
An example of this that’s pretty well-known is agricultural drones which are used to spray crops and are seen frequently in Europe. They are able to reduce the fuel consumption of traditional crop-spraying methods while also being relatively low risk as they fly over crops and not people.
Another example is telecommunication organisations that utilise drones to do tower checks. These can be dangerous operations for people to perform and cost organisations additional money in time and equipment for the teams who undertake these inspections. The same human inspectors can use drones to quickly assess the towers for any required repairs more safely and efficiently.
Unmanned Air Taxis, on the other hand, as cool as they might sound, would be in the certified category since they are carrying passengers. The aviation authorities are not as experienced with these matters, which currently makes it harder to realise drone operations for unmanned air mobility at scale as the authorities put public safety above potential risks. This is likely to change when bVLOS drones are in wider use for other operations like package deliveries at scale.
How to begin understanding SAIL in Europe vs Part 135 in the United States
Unlike in the United States, if an aircraft falls into the specific category in Europe (which is defined as aircraft not falling in the open or certified categories), it will need to go through a verification process to make sure the risk is not too great.
EASA defines the SAILS as an extension of the SORA,
“The SORA consolidates the ground and air risk analyses within the specific assurance and integrity level (SAIL), which drives the required activities. The SAIL is a figure from I to VI, leading to the identification of operational safety objectives (OSOs) to be met with a certain level of robustness (i.e. integrity and assurance), which tend to increase with an increasing SAIL.”
So, that means SAIL stands for Specific Assurance and Integrity Level and directly relates to the SORA, or Specific Operations Risk Assessment. There are six different levels of SAIL, but most operations currently running in Europe are using SAIL I and II because they are operating at lower levels of risk and can thus prove assurance and integrity levels easier.
These regulations seem strict, but they offer guidelines for scaling operations more efficiently than currently in the United States where the FAA has something called Part 135, which is a former regulation that was used in manned aviation and adapted for bVLOS unmanned aircraft.
It might seem like this is similar to EASA’s verification process, but only four companies as of June 2022 have managed to achieve Part 135 requirements, which is why most drone companies in the United States are currently conducting VLOS, or visual line of sight, operations while others like Spright develop operations in Europe to bring the FAA proof of their bVLOS operational concepts.
Want to learn more about the conversation Lorenzo Murzilli had during his time at the Vertical Space? Don’t miss how he describes the process of building and scaling one hypothetical drone company in Europe!
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