NASA’s John Cavolowsky on managing traffic in the drone industry

As the director of NASA’s airspace operations and safety program, John Cavolowsky looks at the drone industry as a new realm that demands new laws.

“If we are going to be doubling the number of aircraft, exploding with UAS operations, we need to understand how we are managing… that system,” he said at Drone Focus Conference on June 1, 2016.

That system demands a focus on three key needs, he said. National and regional security, safe airspace integration, and scaleable operations for economic growth.

The first is the necessity of protecting key assets. Airspace integration can be summed up in a mantra: “Flexibility when possible and structure when needed.”

As far as economic growth, this is something already happening in commercial, agricultural, and personal realms. And it’s growing fast – drawing some to call it the next trillion dollar industry, Cavolowsky said.

“This is not small,” he said. “But it’s not just building aircraft. It’s not just flying aircraft. It’s the weather. Mapping.”

Traffic management is a huge need, he said. At lower altitudes, the UAS industry demands a unique set of management laws that must be put in place. He traces through history, as traffic management evolved from horse and buggies to cars and planes, as a template to learn from as new management laws are being developed.

“We need to ensure that on the UAS side we are learning from this history, and that it’s scaleable,” he said.

Cavolowsky points to the efforts already being done by the National Safe UAS Integration Campaign, a collaboration between Federal Aviation Administration and its test sites. The goal of the campaign, and it was successful in it last year, was to demonstrate management of geographically diverse operations.

This, too, is an example of the collaboration that is needed in order for the industry to progress, he said.

“Our job here at NASA is research,” he said. “We don’t implement a thing. It is implemented through you all.”

Cavolowsky pointed out to the audience, a room filled with everyone from founders of drone startups to executives at larger corporations developing an arm in the UAS industry.

“Our job is to make sure we are at the forefront of our industries, and that our aviation industry is at the top of our world market,” he said. “I know that the way we are making progress is not with NASA, not just with FAA, not just with North Dakota, but with all of us.”

Marisa Jackels