Data is Crucial for Emerging Aviation Technologies
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Data is Crucial for Emerging Aviation Technologies

By James Grimsley, Executive Director - Advanced Technology Initiatives at Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Lisa Ellman, Partner at Hogan Lovells LLP and Executive Director of Commercial Drone Alliance

By James Grimsley, Executive Director - Advanced Technology Initiatives at Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Lisa Ellman, Partner at Hogan Lovells LLP and Executive Director of Commercial Drone Alliance

Few industries have changed the modern world like aviation. The history of safety improvement in aviation is remarkable. During its humble beginnings, air travel was inherently risky, but the aviation industry worked closely with government regulators over a century to develop the safest national airspace system in the world. 

An important component of the aviation safety success story is the evolution and use of aviation safety data. A watershed event that spurred progress on aviation safety was a 1956 mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon, which at the time was the deadliest aviation accident in history.  In the aftermath of this accident, the science for modern aviation accident investigations was born. Over time, aviation data collection processes improved, and new simulation and analysis tools were developed. 

As aviation safety improved, aviation was accepted by a growing segment of society. This created a synergistic cycle with more aviation operations leading to more safety data collection. More safety data collection led to better analysis and safety oversight. Improved safety oversight led to improved trust by the public. This reinforcing cyclical relationship between data collection and safety has strengthened public trust in aviation and fostered and accelerated growth of the industry.

Global society is now on the cusp of transformative aviation technology changes with the evolution of electric propulsion, the advancement of autonomy, and the emergence of uncrewed aircraft systems.  The societal benefits of these technology developments are broad— enhancing safety, promoting national security, providing sustainable transportation solutions and so much more. These new technologies hold the promise of increasing the utility of our national airspace for the greater societal good.  But our outdated regulatory framework is hindering the scaling of these emerging technologies and our ability to improve safety and achieve societal benefits.

These emerging aviation technologies are capable of producing very useful data that will help continue advancing the state of the art. And just as we experienced during the first century of aviation technology development, aviation safety data collection and analyses are crucial to ensure that these emerging technologies are widely adopted and leveraged. Unfortunately, our regulatory system is struggling to enable proper data collection, which prevents the ability to absorb and utilize data effectively.

“Global society is now on the cusp of transformative aviation technology changes with the evolution of electric propulsion, the advancement of autonomy, and the emergence of uncrewed aircraft systems.”

Aviation safety data collection requires regular aviation operations that generate statistically significant, useful data. But regular aviation operations require a permissive regulatory environment. Without safety data from regular operations, the safety regulatory system struggles to keep pace. Therefore, rather than a synergistic cycle for adoption and acceleration, emerging aviation technologies become bogged down in regulatory gridlock. So, how do we overcome this gridlock and unlock the full potential of emerging aviation technologies for all Americans?

First, we must embrace the safety tools that we have at our disposal, some of which did not exist as recently as twenty years ago. Concepts such as “digital twins” allow us to model, simulate, and analyze aviation systems in new ways, and on accelerated timelines. Virtual testing environments allow us to blend synthetic data and real-world data in ways that allow us to explore alternative testing environments quickly, but we need the real-word data to pursue these alternative testing environments.  

Second, aviation safety testing “sandboxes” should allow for real-world experimentation in regions that are eager and willing to innovate.   Some aviation technology testbeds, such as the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s Emerging Aviation Technology Center, exist today. But these sites are not currently utilized at their full potential due to regulatory barriers.

Third, we must support and empower existing teams and efforts, with public-private cooperation, that help pool data and learning for the collective good.  In aviation, we do not compete on safety. We collaborate. Any forum that enables such collaboration, such as the industry-government partnership Drone Safety Team, is a force multiplier for our efforts to modernize aviation safety.

Finally, we must collect data that supports more holistic thinking about benefits and risks.  For example, regulators should develop data on factors such as the “risk of inaction” and the “risk of delayed action” across transportation modalities, to better inform their decision-making. Emerging aviation technologies have the potential to solve immediate social problems and challenges (many not related to aviation).  We must consider the cost to society if these solutions are not immediately available, and better data will help in making safety-enhancing and socially optimal and judgments.

Just as with the first century of aviation, the future of aviation safety starts with the collection, management, analysis, and understanding of data.  Today’s technology is more powerful than ever for collecting useful data. Our challenge now is to modernize our aviation regulatory system to better generate and harness data from emerging aviation technologies, so that we continue to improve aviation safety for the benefit of all of society.

Weekly Brief

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