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“The Drone Industry Is at an Inflection Point” | An Interview with Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk and the New Chair of the Drone Advisory Committee

BY Zacc Dukowitz
23 May 2019

On May 15th, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao named Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk, the new chair of the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC).

The DAC is a broad-based committee that advises the FAA and other government officials on drone rules, with the aim of helping to identify challenges and prioritize ways to improve. The committee has representatives from a variety of stakeholders in the drone world, including private companies, government officials, and non-profit organizations.

Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk and Chair of the DAC

Along with the announcement of Chasen’s selection to head the committee, twelve new members were announced, bringing the total count up to 35.

The new committee members reflect the growing presence of drones in various sectors, and include people like Senior Corporal Mark Colborn of the Dallas Police Department, Captain Michael Leo of the New York City Fire Department, and Thomas Karol, general counsel for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. (See the full list of new members in this announcement on the FAA’s website.)

Chasen has been on the DAC for some time, and we wanted to sit down to ask him about what the committee does and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role.

Begin Interview

What does PrecisionHawk do?

We do three things: We have one of the largest drone pilot networks in the world for helping companies collect data, with 150 full time pilots and 15,000 pilots through; we have powerful machine learning and AI to help analyze data and turn it into actual business intelligence; and we’re experts at flying BVLOS, both short and long range.

What does the DAC do?

The Drone Advisory Committee takes the top leaders in aviation and in the drone industry—people from companies like Boeing, Google, Amazon, and PrecisionHawk—and brings them together to work closely with the FAA to vet issues, talk about policy, and discuss new technology.

Practically speaking, the committee works to create a framework for the way in which the drone industry can successfully move forward, allowing policy makers at the FAA to better understand what’s going on with new technological developments in the private sector, and allowing those in the private sector to better understand policy.

It’s truly a partnership between the government and private industry, which allows everyone to be aware of what’s happening both on the policy side and on the commercial and technology side.

We noticed there are new sectors represented in the twelve new DAC members—public safety and insurance, just to name a few. Do those appointments reflect an intentional effort to bring in new perspectives?

I think the DAC has always tried to represent the key stakeholders in the drone industry—not just the people making drones, but also the people deploying drone technologies—and as the group of stakeholders has grown and changed the membership of the committee has changed too.

So yes, I think it’s accurate to say that the new membership represents trends that we’re seeing in drone adoption, for instance in public safety.

Really, the goal is always to include voices that can provide us with additional insight on how drone technology is being used, and how those uses can inform the policy work we need to do so it’s representative of these new entries.

What would you say to people who feel that hobbyists are under-represented on the committee?

When the DAC meets, I think everyone in the room is aware that the drone industry rose from the hobbyists. Also, I think you could say that everyone on the DAC started out as a drone hobbyist in one way or another, and still keeps that initial passion in mind in their service on the committee.

Image source

Personally, as the CEO of PrecisionHawk we have over a hundred full-time pilots on our staff and a network through of over fifteen-thousand Part 107 certified pilots, and they’re also all recreational flyers as well.

When I’m sitting on the DAC, the main thing I’m thinking of is how to use new technology to support drone pilots, and how to shape policy that will support drone pilots—I’d say I’m definitely an advocate for hobbyists in my work on the committee.

[Did you know? Hobbyists now have to obtain prior authorization to fly near airports.]

In terms of its overall trajectory and growth, where do you think the drone industry is right now?

Before I joined PrecisionHawk I worked in eLearning, where I created Blackboard. After a few years we hit an inflection point, and then adoption just skyrocketed.

Right now I’m starting to see a lot of the same things in the drone industry that I saw then in eLearning, when things really started to take off. I think that especially in the last six to nine months the drone industry has really started to hit that inflection point, where growth begins to happen exponentially.

What are your goals as chair of the DAC?

My main goal is to make sure that we are supporting the growth of drone adoption in a thoughtful way.

I think we are really close—only two or three years, if not sooner—to a point where on an average day you’ll look outside and see drones doing work. And I think we need to make sure that adoption isn’t held back by bad policy, but also that it’s not held back by us not investing in the right technology.

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Technology and policy have to proceed hand-in-hand.

Having a group of thoughtful leaders in the DAC working closely with the FAA is going to help make sure we have the framework in place to support the type of growth that will be happening in this industry over the next few years.

What are some innovations that you’d like to see implemented on the regulatory front? Do you want to push for BVLOS to become mainstream within the next few years or anything along those lines?

Actually, I want to push back on the idea that regulations are the only place where we should put our focus when we talk about progress in the drone industry.

I know some people say regulations are holding the drone industry back, and that we need to make BVLOS mainstream, for instance—but when you really look at the industry, it’s not just regulations that are holding us back.

When we helped create the Pathfinder report on BVLOS, which we first shared at AUVSI two years ago, what we learned is that BVLOS is still a hard thing to do safely, especially if you want to fly long range.

So it’s not just the regulations that need to improve—it’s the technology that needs to improve, too. And that’s why the role of the DAC isn’t just to look at policy, but it’s also to look at policy in conjunction with the technological innovations taking place, and help make sure that both are moving forward together.

When you think of drone regulations five years from now, what would you ideally want them to look like?

I don’t think you figure out what you want the laws to be without first looking at how drones are actually being used, as well as looking at how they could be used.

If we consider drone laws five years from now, I don’t know what the specific drone regulations should look like, but I do believe that we should have a structure in place in which drones can fly further to do more work.

Photo credit: PrecisionHawk

To get there, I think you have to figure out how you want drones to be used in society and then make sure that you are supporting that vision and not holding it back, and you do this from both a policy and a technology perspective.

What would you like to see the DAC focus on? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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