Director of IoT Business Development at Iridium
Our UAV Interview Series is receiving a high amount of positive responses around the drone community.
We have so far interviewed various shakers and movers in the industry. Not to disappoint you this time around we have Joe Darden at our side.
He is the Director of IoT Business Development at Iridium and is leading their Unmanned Vehicle strategy.
Iridium is a satellite communications organization that offers data and voice connectivity.
Being a resident drone expert, he agreed to take part in this interview post to share his knowledge and experience.
In this interview, Joe will talk in-depth about how he got into drones, Iridium company and his role there, his advice for fellow pilots, how you can use drones in different ways, his take on the future of drones, and so on.
Remember this is an exclusive interview from the globe’s only communications company which covers 100 percent of the Earth. So, why wait? Let’s get into it!
Welcome Joe Darden, Tell us about your background and yourself.
I just recently joined Iridium after a 20-year career in the Cellular industry. It’s a case of things being ‘the same but different,’ especially since the satellite industry is, in many ways, designed to provide connectivity with there is no cellular infrastructure, which people are often surprised to learn is only available on around 15% of the Earth. The rest is the satellite. Also, I am a Part 107 Certified Pilot and a general drone enthusiast.
How did you get going in the drone market?
Iridium recognized the emerging drone industry and the vital role Iridium can play in its development and to help it reach its full capacity as quickly as possible. In some ways, I picked up a screaming baby – An industry in definite need of a satellite company with an autonomous aviation strategy.
Many speak about autonomous aviation and drones because they’re buzz words, but we have a tangible roadmap and already see our services being used.
Tell us about your organization, what is it, and your part there. How did the business get started?
Iridium is the world’s only communications company that covers 100% of the Earth. We own and operate a low earth orbit satellite constellation that features 66 interconnected satellites they create a web of connectivity around the planet.
The system offers voice, data, and L-band broadband services, in addition to some unique payloads like the Aireon real-time aircraft tracking and surveillance system that tracks the real-time location of every ADS-B equipped aircraft in the world, including any drones that may have a 1090 MHz ADS-B transponder installed.
Iridium launched its original constellation in the late 1990’s, and just completed a replacement of the entire satellite constellation, launching 75 new space vehicles – 66 in the operational constellation and 9 on-orbit spares.
As for my role specifically, I work in our IoT (Internet of Things) line of business, and autonomous/remote piloted aviation is one of my core focuses.
What type of gear and drones you are flying? Any ideas to upgrade?
I currently have a Parrot Anafi. No plans to upgrade until I master the art of flying this model without crashing. I do have my eye on the Intel Falcon 8 with thermal and LiDAR vision, but I’ll have to save up for that one.
Tell us about a few of the products/drones you manufacture and design. What is your best seller?
We provide connectivity for anywhere you fly. Iridium partners with Value Added Manufacturers like Thales, Honeywell, Cobham and dozens of others to design and manufacture products for specific uses, that provide connectivity for things like aircraft and drones.
Some of our partners have a single-mode (Satcom only), while others are developing dual-mode (Satcom and cellular).
Iridium is particularly valuable for beyond line of sight flying, long-haul drone missions, and as a redundancy option in case of local infrastructure becomes compromised.
As you may know, if a hurricane, cyclone or other types of natural disaster were to occur, local communications infrastructure are often the first thing to go down, and drones are becoming increasingly crucial to surveying the situation and helping enable the most effective, efficient, and highly coordinated response efforts. These are the moments when Iridium’s technology shines.
Who are the majority of your customers, or your most frequent kinds of projects?
Connecting beyond cellular. Iridium has seen a lot of adoption in the IoT world, but also still have a very robust voice communications business, but as I mentioned, our most rapidly growing category is IoT.
Some examples of IoT based connectivity include monitoring remote sensors (tank level monitoring), asset tracking, and personal navigation/tracking/messaging devices like Garmin’s InReach, command and control functions, telematics information, helping track endangered species, and so forth.
Iridium is also involved in commercial and general aviation, providing connectivity in the cockpit for the pilot to ground communications, DataLink, Electronic Flight-Bag, ACARS, AFF, and other safety services.
Rotocraft is an area that we excel in particular due to the characteristics of our L-Band signal, which is not impacted by rotor-wash and weather like Ka/Ku band can be.
Iridium’s heritage in traditionally piloted aviation is deeply rooted in our entire organization; in fact, our CEO Matt Desch is a pilot.
Also, there are a lot of similarities in the drone/UAV industry today that traditional aviation went through in the 20th Century.
Safety first. Start small and develop piloting skills before you spend $1000s on an expensive crash test vehicle.
A few other basic ‘best practices’ are to use a pre-flight checklist every time you fly, use a drone landing pad especially if you’re landing on grass or uneven surfaces, do a post-flight briefing (very useful in learning as you go along, identifying ways to improve your process and skill level) and always bring back up batteries/charging.
What advances on drone technology you are excited about? What advances on drone technology you are excited about?
Autonomous and Beyond Visual Line of Sight technology. There is a safety case for leveraging the human workforce while at the same time using remotely piloted aircraft to make their work safer.
Imagine autonomous aircraft inspecting power lines and railroad lines, returning relevant, actionable data autonomously so humans can be sent out to fix/optimize the infrastructure versus sending a team to inspect the line and then hoping they already have what they need for the repair.
What is the demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) today? How has it evolved since you launched your business?
The industry is in a state of change, as the regulators get ahold of how to ensure navigation in the National Air Space is safe for everyone (remotely piloted and traditionally piloted aviation vehicles).
There’s a global movement around UAS and as much as a bummer as it can be to say, the regulations need to catch up to the technology to ensure safe airspace. Nobody wants airplane and drone collisions etc.
What are a few of the most creative ways you have seen drones getting used?
Delivering blood, medical supplies, vaccines in remote countries that lack infrastructure (SwoopAero and Zipline); Using LiDAR equipped optics on aircraft to do survey/mapping (100x more accurate than traditional methods; Farmers using thermal cameras to identify leaks in irrigation systems; Disaster recovery teams identifying the source of a flood and utilizing an aerial point of view to develop the mission/plan; Commercial fishermen identifying better fishing areas, or tracking schools of fish to maximize their haul; Inspections of infrastructure – going from a 5-6 year cycle of inspection to 12-28 months.
There’s a ton of applications with more coming. It’s a very exciting time!
What are the most frequent errors you find operators doing with their Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAS operations?
Relying on only one method of communications and not having a redundancy/fall back plan. If your communication link goes down, what is your plan? The old adage ‘You do not plan to fail, you fail to plan.’
How Iridium’s communications network functions in the rising UAS world?
Iridium is the only communications network that has truly global coverage. An example of this is one of our customers, SwoopAero, who is delivering Vaccines to the remote islands that make up Vanuatu.
The truth is that only approximately 37% of the Earth’s landmass has cellular coverage and about 15% of the entire planet.
What types of incidences could lead to a drone user charged with a crime or being sued?
Insurance is essential for commercial drone operators. If an aircraft loses it’s connection to the control station, has a ‘fly away’ and crashes into somebodies house/car the pilot is responsible not only for the damages but reporting to the FAA (if in the United States) – I think Farmers Insurance has a funny commercial that pokes fun at this.
Regarding crime, that’s a tricky one. In the US, the FAA has prosecuted only about 50 people for breaking the law (unauthorized use of the National Air Space).
The FAA governs the NAS, so local law enforcement cannot technically take action against an aircraft’s pilot until the aircraft lands, and I haven’t heard of anyone being arrested (but I also do not follow this side of it that closely).
What is your take on the future of the drone?
Remotely Piloted Aircraft enables us to do many things we could never have done before and can significantly increase the safety and efficiency of how we do things today.
The key challenges that face the industry are 1) safety 2) convincing the public that ‘drones’ (I prefer remotely piloted aircraft) are good (I.E., they’re not taking anyone’s jobs, they’re not dangerous, and they’re not spying on anyone).
Right now, we are in a time of significant change and advancement for the industry. Much like the early part of the 20th Century after the Wright Brothers flew their first successful mission.
We know it is possible, and technology is advancing rapidly. The key for the industry is to figure out how the economics of the growth in commercial use work.
Dick Depew said it best during the early days of aviation, ‘The greatest hazard in flying is the risk of starving to death.’ Businesses operating commercially are going to have to figure out how to generate revenue and drive an economic engine that leverages the technology.
Right now the people making money in a profitable way are generally the manufacturers that are building at scale.
xPonential (AUVSI), Connected Skies (GUTMA) and The Silicon Valley Drone Show (sUAS News) and Uber’s Elevate Summit. Seeing EVTOLs at the Uber Summit was pretty eye-opening in terms of how far we’ve come and how close we are to Urban Air Mobility via Autonomous Vehicles.
Bell’s Nexus Air Taxi is pretty impressive when you see it live and sit in the passenger compartment. I also recently took a trip to New York and tested Urban Air Mobility with Blade’s JFK to NYC helicopter taxi, as well as Uber’s UberCopter (same route). The future is nearer than many thinks, but there is still a lot of work to do.
What are the dangers of not studying the regulations, particularly if somebody is trying to operate a drone for commercial purposes?
Same as any business has for risks across the board. Let us face it, starting and running a small business is very difficult. In fact, 80% of small businesses fail within the first 5 years.
Not sure how many of those are due to take on an unknown amount of risk, but I am sure there is a correlation. Knowledge and education are key, and I applaud companies like DJI who have a knowledge test required before an owner can fly one of their aircraft.