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Friday, March 6, 2015

Robotic Skies: A Q&A with President and CEO Brad Hayden

By Katie Kriz, Assistant Managing Editor

Brad Hayden
Robotic Skies, an international network of service centers for commercial UAS, has gotten off to a promising start. Today, after one year in business, the company has nearly 60 repair stations across the globe, including its most recent one in South Africa. The company also recently completed its first repair and return-to-service of a service-drone G4 1.4 UAS. Rotor & Wing sat down with Robotic Skies President and CEO Brad Hayden to speak in-depth about the company, the UAS industry and the recent FAA/DOT NPRM on UAS.

RW: What is the goal of Robotic Skies?

BH: Our goal is to be working on not just the smaller systems, which is a lot of what’s flying right now and we see a lot of value in that, but we’re going to be doing the exact same thing for the bigger airframes when they start flying in the future. Robotic Skies really views this new UAS landscape as an extension of aviation, not an entirely new industry. We view it as a new market segment. I’ve spent the last year trying to raise awareness on UAS. It’s funny, when I first started, no one wanted to talk about it, pilots hated it, but now they’re starting to come around and realize that there could be opportunity in it.

RW: How might UAS alter a corporation’s current model?

BH: My message to the corporate flight departments is that companies are going to be replacing ground-based crews with more and more aircraft, albeit unmanned aircraft, it’s aircraft nonetheless. And really, who is more suited to evaluate, purchase, contract or operate those systems than the flight departments of today? So it really gives them more of an opportunity to be even more relevant to the bottom line of their corporations. 

RW: Do you think AMTs be required to work on unmanned systems or will anyone with the capability be able to work on it?

BH: It depends on what kind of aircraft we’re talking about. If it’s over 55 pounds and it’s flying up in the NAS or it’s autonomous, that’s going to be a full-on certified aircraft and that’s going to be maintained by the same people that are maintaining the manned aircraft today. If it’s held to any standard, it will actually be a higher standard because again, it won’t have a set of eyes in the cockpit. So those aircraft are going to be maintained by the very people who are working on manned aircraft today. They’re going to be flying in and out of our airports and coming into our hangars, and we’ll be working on them there. So it’s a huge opportunity for us in that environment.

For the smaller systems, it remains to be seen exactly how it will work. And it’s going to come back to the size issue as well. So if you have a small DJI, you’re probably not going to want to pay anybody to do the maintenance on it - you’re going to want to do that yourself.

When you start getting into the bigger stuff, a couple factors will come into play. First will be the regulations. What are they going to require? Is it going to be something similar to what we see in light sport aircraft where the manufacturer actually determines what the program should be from a maintenance standpoint and then they train the technicians who can either work on their own aircraft, or if they want to get more training they can actually work on other people’s aircraft as well? Obviously, if you’re an AMT, you already have a leg up on that. So it’s easier for you to get certified to work on that airframe. That’s going to be the interesting thing – are avionics repairmen going to be required? Are AMTs going to be required? I think it’s going to depend upon what the regulations say and that’s what we’re waiting to find out.

There could be some reasonable approaches. An unreasonable approach would say that this sUAS has to be maintained by an aviation professional. It doesn’t mean, though, that if I’m a company that spent $35-55,000 on a hot rotor, I’m going to want to take it to a hot shop to get it fixed. I’m going to want to take it to an aviation professional. And I think that what we’ll see is that people who are buying these craft will increasingly be not the pilots we have today, who are technology enthusiasts or leading-edge type technologists.

The pilots of the future are going to be operators who are going to say ‘I want this thing to go’ and if it doesn’t go they’re going to take it somewhere to get it fixed. Well, if you have a $35,000 multi-rotor, where do you want to take it? Right now I think one of the most logical places to take it will be a Part 145 repair station who understands how to take something apart, put it back together, operationally test it and make sure that when they hand it to the customer, it’s ready to go. Just like they do with manned aircraft today.

So there are going to be two driving factors: the regulations and the very real business case of who is going to maintain these things when you have a $35,000 to $55,000 capital investment.

RW: What is the impact of the FAA/DOT’s recent NPRM on the sUAS market?

BH: The FAA released the 195-page NPRM [very recently], so we all need time to study it in detail. At first glance, however, given the onerous requirements of a Section 333 exemption, I doubt that anyone expected the proposed regulations that proactively ensure safety without unduly restricting the growth of UAS technology.

What the final rule will look like depends on the comment period. Because federal rulemaking requirements require the FAA to address each comment, their number and tenor will shape the regulations and how long it takes the FAA to complete them. If the final rule emerges with few changes, I think we’ll see a huge surge in commercial sUAS activity.

RW: What is Robotic Skies’ sUAS market potential if the NPRM’s recommendations of no airworthiness certification for sUAS makes it to the finalized set of regulations?

BH: The sUAS manufacturers that we work with recognize the value our programs add to the reliability and mission capabilities of their airframes. This relationship becomes more important with the NPRM because it will require sUAS operators to comply with manufacturer inspection and maintenance requirements instead of traditional airworthiness requirements, which will still apply to any certificated component installed on a sUAS. With the exception, maybe, of some really small airframes, most sUAS are aircraft that employ complex technology.

Their designers and manufacturers have and will engage our ongoing services to protect their customers’ substantial sUAS investment. Robotic Skies’ market opportunity will grow with the UAS industry as it evolves from small UAS flown within the operator’s line of sight. Before larger unmanned aircraft can fly above 500 feet and beyond the operator’s line of sight, they will surely require certification, inspections, maintenance and avionics equal to manned aircraft.

RW: Where is Robotic Skies headed?

BH: While UAS maintenance is the cornerstone of Robotic Skies’ business plan, we will leverage our growing service center network to develop and sell UAS value-added services as opportunities arise within this rapidly growing market. Systems and business consulting, training, operations, data capture and analysis, custom airframe and component development, and channel sales will be tremendous growth opportunities for our company in the future. To prepare, we have spent the last year developing internal expertise and establishing key partner relationships to provide those solutions to both manned and unmanned aviation companies as this emerging market develops.

Related: Unmanned News

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