Michael Huerta
By Michael Huerta

Michael Huerta served as Administrator of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration from 2013 to 2018. He is now part of the leadership team at Kitty Hawk.

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Innovation versus safety – a necessary conflict?

In the early 1960s, “The Jetsons” was a popular TV show, set in 2062. The animated series chronicled the life of a typical family living a happy urban lifestyle — except that their neighborhood happened to be in the sky. George Jetson got his news from a screen. His job seemed to involve pushing a lot of buttons. If Jane Jetson worried about not looking presentable on video calls, she could use a robotic mask that looked just like her on a good day. Transportation was quick and easy because everyone got around in flying cars. Technology was a limitless enabler, and it was everywhere.

Kitty Hawk Heaviside eVTOL
Kitty Hawk is developing the winged Heaviside eVTOL for urban air mobility missions. Shown here is the prototype registered N222HV. Kitty Hawk Photo

We are more than halfway to 2062 since “The Jetsons” premiered, and a lot of what it portrayed has become commonplace. Many of us get our news off of screens, and a lot of our jobs involve pushing buttons — a lot of buttons — as well as clicking and swiping. We all spend way too much time on video calls (and may or may not be concerned about how we look). And we have a more knowing view of technology; we understand that it can be far from perfect. But we still spend most of our time firmly on the ground.

The emergence of eVTOL aircraft puts us on the verge of the flying car utopia the Jetsons enjoyed. Today we have a good understanding of the pitfalls and challenges that need to be overcome for it to be deployed successfully: We’re all for the convenience and efficiency of eVTOL or flying cars, but we need to know that they will work reliably, and that they are safe. We want to get to our destination as efficiently and comfortably as possible, not to mention arriving in one piece.

The eVTOL industry has its roots in the technology sector, which values speed in getting things to market as quickly as possible. People working in tech are encouraged to take risks. There’s a recognition that sometimes you will break things, and that’s all right, often rewarded. The common understanding is that innovation requires being willing to try new approaches and learn quickly from failures.

In contrast, the aviation industry that eVTOL will be part of has a very different culture. Having spent a lot of my career at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and in aviation, I know that first and foremost aviation is rooted in safety. That translates to a much higher level of caution — aviation is slow to change largely because aviation is so safe. Nobody wants to be the one who hurts an impressive industry-wide safety record.

Is a culture of innovation in conflict with a culture of safety and caution? They don’t need to be. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong. But it is important to understand the differences, and recognize why they are distinct.

Consider what happens when you get a new smartphone. When you start it up, the first thing it does is download a bunch of software updates and patches. We expect that, and it’s fine — in a sense, our personal technology makes us constant beta testers. We buy smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices knowing that they may not be perfect, but that they will continue to improve over time.

But in an aircraft, do we want software updates installing as we fly? It all comes down to how we view risk. Risk is all around us; we accept it every day, even though the risk we accept depends on our perceptions. Based on fatality and injury rates, it’s more risky to drive than to fly — and we continue to drive. But once we leave the ground, we have very high expectations.

The tech industry has brought us a stream of innovative technologies that will revolutionize the way we experience aviation. The aviation industry has developed sophisticated processes for managing risk, and the result has been a long-running and very high level of safety. It is essential that we find ways to combine the two, especially when we look at new ways of transportation to free the world from traffic.

When I was leading the FAA, we learned that the best way to deal with integrating technological innovation and aviation safety was to bring teams together to solve specific problems. One of our first efforts was to look at whether we could eliminate the longstanding rule against using personal electronic devices on commercial flights during take-off and landing. Our interdisciplinary group provided invaluable advice, and the ban on the use of portable electronic devices was lifted on Oct. 31, 2013. 

Two years later, we adopted a similar approach to deal with the large number of drones already operating, when projected sales were estimated at 1 million for the 2015 holiday season. The FAA had to design and implement a registry for unmanned aircraft to keep track of all these drones, and also educate users on their safe use.

The challenge was that we had less than six months to get something in place. We brought together a group of stakeholders from the worlds of aviation, drones and tech to develop a plan and design a system. Our registry went live on Dec. 21, 2015. The online process is quick and easy, and it educates users on rules for drones. Since launch, more than 1.7 million drones have been registered.

As these examples show, aviation and tech have shown a willingness to work together and when they do, both sides benefit. At Kitty Hawk, we have very detailed technical and policy discussions with regulators at the FAA and with our colleagues and counterparts across the aviation and tech sectors to move aviation forward. By putting the two together, we may finally get to the Jetsonian age, where safety is a standard feature and eVTOL aircraft are a part of our world.

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1 Comment

  1. What a great article. Couldn’t help but smile at the references to The Jetsons. It was so far ahead of its time and yet correctly predicted so much of the future; not just UAMS, but tanning beds, flat-screen TVs and so many other things we take for granted in 2020. Ironically, it was taken off the air, not due to ratings – it had a very large following in the US – but because it was animated in colour and at the time, only 3% of US households had colour TV. So a show that was all about the future was taken off the air for being ahead of its time.

    Anyway, couldn’t agree more with the author: Collaboration will be pivotal in bringing innovation and safety together in UAM.

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