FCC chair Tom Wheeler drone airmap utm

Former FCC chair joins Airmap in what could mean a leg up for UTM aspirations

AirMap just scored what could potentially be a huge win, as the company is one of a handful trying to dominate the space of UTM (aka air traffic control for drones).

Tom Wheeler, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will join AirMap’s Board of Directors, in a move announced this week. AirMap is working on building a global unmanned aerial systems traffic management (UTM) platform. The California-based drone startup has developed an open platform of APIs and SDKs designed to allow drones to connect with each other. AirMap has integrations with providers including 3DR, DJI, DroneDeploy, Intel, Matternet, and senseFly, and is available in more than 25 countries.

The FCC, which regulates interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable (which could include drones, too) has been making quiet rumblings lately when it comes to drone regulation. The FCC last year put out an enforcement advisory stating that drone transmitters must comply with FCC rules if they are to be marketed to U.S. customers. And the FCC has followed through with their enforcement promises, going after companies who have sold drone products that transmitted on frequencies they should not have or were not certified, including slapping drone hobby giants Horizon Hobby with a $35,000 fine, and Hobbyking with an even more massive $2.8 million fine.

While drones come under FAA jurisdiction if they are flying outdoors, drones (assuming they carry radio receivers and transmitters) come under FCC regulation due to the ground-based control transmitter and airborne video transmitter.

And as Airmap looks into creating a network of drones to communicate with each other, having the experience of a former FCC chair is increasingly going to be relevant.

Some of the proposed plans for UTM involve a system where multiple service providers (like AirMap) would allow drone operators to connect with each other through a common application interface. Users would digitally send information about their flight destination and receive data of other drone’s flight information. It would be a very similar model to the cell phone industry, where your provider (ie. Verizon) is able to send your text message to a central system, which gets transmitted back out to your friend (even if they use AT&T or Sprint). And of course, the cell phone industry is heavily influenced (and regulated by) the FCC.

It’s also an important move, given Wheeler’s experience in the government sector. The drone industry is increasingly turning to public-private partnerships as a means of testing and implementing regulation and technology. Former FCC chair Wheeler’s expertise could help the company bridge any potential gaps between the government and the drone startup.

Perhaps the biggest public-private partnership in the drone industry is the FAA’s drone pilot program, which pairs 10 state and local governments up with private companies to test types of drone flights that are currently banned in the U.S., including flying drones at night, flying over people and package delivery. AirMap is actually involved in six of the 10 test sites.

Wheeler served as the 31st FCC Chairman between 2013 and 2017, during which he was appointed by President Barack Obama. Prior to that, he served as the President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. And not only can he be found in both the Wireless Hall of Fame and the Cable Television Hall of Fame, but he is the only person to hold both of those titles.

Airmap has made a number of strides lately including partnering with Project Wing, the drone division of X (the company formerly known as Google), and San Francisco-based startup Kittyhawk to show proof of a system of electronically identifying drones overhead. They also recently announced a number of new partnerships with companies including Fortem Technologies, Skyguide and Honeywell.

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