Dara Treseder, CMO of GE Ventures, moderates this Q&A with Ken Stewart, General Manager of AiRXOS
While it may take many years before drones deliver packages to our doorsteps, a new GE venture, AiRXOS, is already working to accelerate the safe, efficient and scalable growth of unmanned aircrafts both in the United States and globally. Its combination of infrastructure, software and services form a digital unmanned aircraft system ecosystem that helps companies as well as state, local and federal governments meet the demand for increased drone use and manage both manned and unmanned air traffic.
I asked Ken Stewart, general manager, AiRXOS, to elaborate on how this startup can help drones operate safely in more places within the next few years.
Q. Tell us about the genesis of AiRXOS.
A. AiRXOS is an example of how GE’s Business Creation team uses operational rigor to create businesses that are rooted in a shared purpose to help the world work better. AiRXOS aims to bring to market a number of autonomous technologies and infrastructure suitable for use in commercial air and ground robotics. GE saw a tremendous opportunity for a system that can address big problems like drone operations, corridor development and digitizing air traffic management. The rapid development of autonomous vehicles demands new ways to manage both manned and unmanned vehicles, and this impacts virtually every industry that GE serves. We created AiRXOS to combine infrastructure, software and services into a system that fits into and improves the existing air traffic management system, safely. In addition to GE’s transportation businesses, our customers in energy, healthcare, manufacturing and supply chain, and elsewhere will benefit from this.
Q. What is AiRXOS’ technology?
A. The combination of GE intellectual property and new innovations lets us develop a new model for air traffic management, including transforming standards, advancing policy, and deploying autonomy on the “edge.” Altogether, AiRXOS enables automated, precision navigation and the creation of standards that enable manned and unmanned vehicles to coexist seamlessly and safely.
There are three parts to AiRXOS’ portfolio:
1. High-powered, cloud computing infrastructure that lets drone pilots visualize their airspace, including weather, other traffic, terrain like mountains or trees, or obstacles like cell towers
2. Intelligent avionics, including high-performance edge computing necessary for drones to collect and use all the data they collect and to safely operate unmanned aircraft
3. Services, including the regulatory and policy expertise to help both the FAA and drone operators operate safely, including corridor development and traffic management
Q. Where do you expect to see drones deployed in the next couple of years?
A. We need the regulatory framework to catch up with the technology before drones can operate at industrial scale, but the evolution is happening – and getting faster. It has to, because there are a lot of drones being built and sold. In 2016, there were 2.5 million UAVs in the United States, and the Federal Aviation Administration expects that number to nearly triple to 7 million in 2020. Some of those are hobbyists, but the demand for drones in agriculture and other industries is growing rapidly. That’s why the Department of Transportation announced a pilot program to evaluate how drones can operate safely in different areas and in different ways, of over 150 applications, there were 10 pilot programs that were just announced. AiRXOS was selected to work with three of the pilots – the City of San Diego, the City of Memphis, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. These pilot programs will give the FAA what it needs to set up the regulatory framework and identify infrastructure or other requirements. We are probably a bit out from having drones deliver packages to homes, but we will start to see advanced drone operations by 2020 for such things as infrastructure inspections and possibly emergency deliveries such as organs for a transplant.
Q. Where will we see AiRXOS’ system working first?
A. We are working with our GE partners, including another GE Ventures portfolio company, Avitas Systems, in West Texas to develop the criteria that would enable the FAA to allow pipeline and wellhead inspection drones to fly beyond the line-of-sight or for one pilot to operate more than one drone simultaneously. Current regulations don’t allow that. But, the Permian Basin in Texas is one of the least populated areas in the United States – it’s nearly 25,000 square miles and has only about 16 residents per square mile. The national average Is 92 people per square mile – and in New Jersey, there are over 1,200, so we are talking about flying over an area with very few people on the ground. Being able to automate those infrastructure inspections would be a huge safety improvement compared to having crews driving trucks over long distances on some of the most dangerous highways in the nation or exposing employees to the risk of methane gas ignition. Being able to do these important safety inspections using unmanned aerial or ground systems would add a much higher level of safety to the whole process.
Q. When will this system go into operation?
A. We have already been working with the FAA and others on the specific waivers that will be required, and we think we can implement this within a year. But the Permian Basin is very different from the rest of the country. It will take a lot longer before we have similar systems in place for more populated areas. We expect that the next major phase of unmanned aircraft system deployment will begin next year and take hold by around 2020.
Q. What are the benefits of collaborating with GE on this launch?
A. The great thing about being part of GE is that we are a startup, but we already have a lot of partnerships. For example, as I mentioned we work with Avitas Systems, which develops autonomous inspection and predictive analytics for the energy sector. Because we are all part of the same family, it’s easy to combine efforts and test and deploy it in real situations. We also work closely with the Avionics business in GE Aviation, so being able to collaborate and benefit from their technology and expertise is quite helpful. There’s a lot of cross-pollination across GE, so it’s a great resource for us.
Q. What are some of the challenges that AiRXOS must overcome?
A. As we consider drones flying longer distances or over populated areas, we need to be able to collect and analyze a lot more data – both the data that the drone is acquiring for whatever task it is performing and to operate safely. For example, our system pulls together weather, traffic, and other information needed for safe navigation. Artificial intelligence helps us manage all of this data. We need higher powered computing on the drones themselves, and all of that data has to be transmitted to the cloud. Weather and other data also needs to be transmitted to the drones in real-time. This is a massive amount of data exchange and computing, but it is necessary if we are going to safely operate unmanned aircraft beyond the line of sight and with less human pilot intervention.
In terms of the industry there are issues around scale – the predicted density of drone traffic is more than current air traffic managemeny systems can handle right now, communication – ATM systems work on voice communication with pilots and control towers, drones don’t have a an on-board pilot, and some drones don’t have any voice features. You also have radar issues – manned traffic uses radar to detect and avoid, radar presents an issue for unmanned traffic since drones fly too close to the ground for efficient use of radar. So a lot of challenges, which promises many opportunities.
Q. What is the most exciting part of this launch for you personally?
A. I am excited that we can share what we are doing with more people. We were operating in stealth mode for a long time. Now we can let the world know that we are already in a strong position, thanks to our participation in the Department of Transportation pilot programs, our collaboration with the NUAIR alliance in New York, and our other projects and partnerships. The unmanned traffic management space is still defining itself, and we are excited to be in a great position to seize opportunities and help our customers realize the benefits of this new technology.
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 Permian Basin Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy http://www.pbrpc.org/pdfs/CEDSofPB_final011409.pdf