Ben Marcus, Chairman and Co-Founder of California's AirMap. Image: AirMap

Interview: Ben Marcus of AirMap


AirMap, founded in 2015 by Ben Marcus and Gregory McNeal in Santa Monica, California, is a top player worldwide in low-altitude air navigation systems for drones, with a roster of investment partners including Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Sony, Rakuten, and Yuneec, and new investors Honeywell and Temasek. The company is at the forefront of the rapidly evolving efforts to integrate drone flights in national airspaces, with deployments in Switzerland, Japan, the Czech Republic, and the United States, participation in research (NASA, the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, and four other European countries in the SESAR-JU programs), and a demonstration last month of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Service Supplier (USS) interoperability in remote identification (Remote ID) of c-drones with Alphabet’s Wing and, called the InterUSS Platform. Ben Marcus is AirMap’s Chairman and he spoke with us by telephone on March 20, following a flurry of announcements by AirMap last week at the World ATM Congress in Madrid concerning new partnerships. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: I’m on the wire with Ben Marcus of AirMap. Ben, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ben Marcus: It’s a pleasure.

Q: Now, I was unable to attend the World ATM Congress last week. I regretted not being able to go, and then I started seeing press releases about AirMap come out and after the third or fourth one I lost count and I said, “Wow, lots of things are happening over there.” So, maybe I can start by running down the list and we can talk a little bit about each partnership, and then I can ask you some broader questions afterwards.

Ben Marcus: Sure.

Q: On March 7th, you talked about the Honeywell Ventures and the Temasek investments and you didn’t say how much the investments were, unless I missed something, but I imagine they’re fairly substantial investments.

Ben Marcus: Yes. In this particular case, we did not disclose the amount of the investment. Temasek is a very large investor that is one of the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore. And Honeywell Ventures is clearly one of the largest industrial conglomerates in the world. So these are significant investments.

Q: Honeywell has also been a client, they’re using your platform. And just five days later, you announced a partnership with them for a drone tracking system, which I understand is a drone-side, hardware project, with 4G, satellite. And I’m wondering how that would be marketed. Would it be to ANSPs who would be using the AirMap UTM Platform, and then would require that as a retrofit to drones or would it be to OEMs, manufacturers of drones, or how do you see that working out?

Ben Marcus: Well, the most important thing is that drone operators are able to connect to the UTM platform. And we want to provide a wide variety of ways to establish that connection. So if you’re flying a drone that is already connected to the AirMap API and you have some other way to connect to the internet, then there’s no need for a tracker such as the one that we announced last week. But if you’re flying a Beyond Visual Line of Sight [BVLOS] drone, let’s say, and you have not yet incorporated a system that allows it to make a connection to the Internet, this solution is the easy way to do that. So that’s the purpose of it. In terms of how it will be marketed, we certainly don’t intend that this will be required in any circumstance. It’s just another mechanism to the internet, to connect to the UTM platform.

Q: All right. And I read in the press release that it’s meant to be a low-cost solution. Is it also meant to be a low-weight solution? Because with lots of small drones, you’re very often counting your grams so that you have whatever’s available for the payload.

Ben Marcus: Yes, this will be very, very small. We haven’t yet released any specifications, but yes, rest assured it will be suitable for very, very small drones.

Q: OK. Now also on March 12th, you announced a roadmap with the Air Navigation Services of the Czech Republic [ANS CR] and also UpVision for a fully operational UTM system by 2020 through Smart Sky. So what could you tell me about that?

Ben Marcus: Smart Sky is the Czech Republic’s vision for the future of an integrated airspace system. Previously we announced that AirMap and Air Navigation Services of the Czech Republic had established foundational UTM services at the airport in Prague. We’re very pleased and excited to be working with our partners there to further develop a roadmap to deploy UTM across the Czech Republic.

Q: All right. Now, about Switzerland, you talked about LAANC for skyguide in Switzerland, drone flights in Geneva and Lugano. And you’ve been involved with the Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights with Matternet and the Swiss Post there I think, tell me about that.

Ben Marcus: Yes. We established our partnership with skyguide, which is the Swiss Air Navigation Service Provider [ANSP], initially in 2017 when we performed a demonstration in Geneva. We had multiple drones flying and full awareness of the airspace for air traffic controllers in Geneva as well as for the drone operators. In 2018 we followed with our partnership that established the Swiss U-space. And what we’ve announced here at the show is that the first elements of that Swiss U-space are now live and in beta, working in Lugano and in Geneva. So, a set of drone operators in those regions of Switzerland can now obtain authorization to fly in controlled airspace through the Swiss U-space system powered by AirMap. With Matternet specifically, we’ve provided them with air risk mitigation in the form of traffic information that is a part of the safety case that they use for their Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations in Switzerland and approved by the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation. So, we’ve been doing that now for about a year and Matternet is performing really important missions, delivering blood samples from hospitals to testing labs in a number of places in Switzerland and we’re very pleased to be supporting them.

Q: Now, I was confused when I saw the acronym LAANC because I thought LAANC was 100% an FAA thing, is it on purpose that you call it LAANC [in Switzerland]? Is it because the tech is very similar or is it because the positioning of the solution is very similar?

Ben Marcus: I can’t speak directly for the FAA, but I think it’s safe to say that they are proud of what they’ve developed and they should be, and I think they’re happy for others to follow. The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability is really unlocking the drone economy, it’s allowing commercial operators to fly more, to be more responsive to the needs of their customers, to fly more immediately after a request comes in. In the United States last year, AirMap provided digital authorizations for more than 45,000 commercial drone flights through the LAANC system. So other countries are following suit. Switzerland is an example of that, and AirMap and skyguide are very happy to adopt the same terminology for the same concept that the FAA created.

Q: All right, that’s clear. Now let’s move one day over to March 13th, you announced the partnership with Indra, it’s a pretty big deal, they are a 3 billion euro company. They have very strong business in Latin America, they have over 40,000 employees, they’re present in over 40 countries. As I understand it, they’re also looking for an entry to the US market. What can you tell me about that initiative?

Ben Marcus: We’ve been working closely with Indra over a period of time to figure out how their customers, Air Navigation Service Providers, would like to bring Unmanned aircraft Traffic Management into the way that they operate. And in many cases there is a need to integrate the UTM system and the ATM system, the existing Air Traffic Management system. Working closely with the established vendor in those markets is helpful for the Air Navigation Service Provider to get up and running with UTM. So, we’re working with Indra in a number of places where they have their air traffic management systems in place, and we anticipate that this will help to accelerate market adoption of UTM, which we think is very important for the drone industry. Today, drones are limited in the places that they can fly or some of the operations that they can perform because we don’t have things like automated authorization or electronic identification in many places around the world. And until those things are in place, the amount of sophistication of the operations that drones are able to perform is limited. So we’re excited that Indra will help us get UTM into the market more quickly.

Q: OK. And that brings us to Fortem Technologies. I’ve been following Fortem for a while [see our interview with Gregg Pugmire – Ed.], the SkyDome, the TrueView radar. So what’s that about?

Ben Marcus: Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases recently where aircraft pilots or other people have seen or believed to have seen a drone near an airport, and this has caused airport operations to temporarily be suspended in many places such as Gatwick, Heathrow, Newark [pilot/ATC audio], Dublin, Dubai, Tel Aviv, and a couple of others since December. So airports need a solution. They need a way to be able to know if there’s actually a drone there. Today, there is no way for airports to know definitively whether or not there is a drone there. And they need to know if the drone that is there is authorized to be there, or if it poses some sort of danger to the airline operations. So we believe that the solution to this problem is an integration of Unmanned aircraft Traffic Management services such as registration, identification, geofencing, airspace authorization, and ground-based sensors that can detect potential bad actors that are flying drones with the intent of causing harm. We believe that the vast majority of drone operators are not intending to cause harm. We think that there’s a very small fraction of 1% of drone operators that may have that intent, and the others are operating legitimately. So, the collaboration between AirMap and Fortem brings a comprehensive solution to solving this problem, keeping airports open, and mitigating the potential risk that the regulators will slow down progress in the drone industry because of the fear of a collision between a drone and a manned aircraft.

Q: All right. Now, do you see that as focused on the US market, or is it also international, Switzerland or the Middle East or elsewhere?

Ben Marcus: This is a global issue. So this particular partnership is not focused on any particular market. This is a solution we intend on offering everywhere in the world.

Q: More generally speaking, which countries or regions around the world do you feel are the most proactive in developing UTM, U-space? What are they doing right?

Ben Marcus: You know, we’ve seen a really rapid acceleration of UTM development all around the world. It’s hard to think of a place that isn’t thinking about UTM. The United States has certainly been leading in a lot of ways with FAA and NASA collaboration, with LAANC being one of the very first UTM services deployed in the world. Europe is also a leader with the U-space concept being developed by the European Commission with the leadership of the DG MOVE [Directorate General for Mobility and Transport] — Violeta Bulc, the Commissioner — and work between the Air Navigation Service Providers and third party suppliers like AirMap, and SESAR, the Single European Sky ATM Research initiative. And then Japan is another really shining example of UTM innovation with the projects which are headed by METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, they’ve been supporting the growth of these research initiatives and bringing services to Japan quite similar to work that’s being done with NASA. So it’s really a global phenomenon and we’ve seen a rapid acceleration in the interest, the investments and the progress in research & development from all corners of the world.

Q: All right. Now, as I understand it, U-space management, UTM, relies heavily on telecommunications, but in cities there are often dead spots with poor reception. In your view, what kind of airspace infrastructure or safeguards could be deployed to develop safe use of professional drones in cities?

Ben Marcus: Communication is one element of UTM, and we don’t believe that you need to have persistent connection between the drone and the U-space system at all times. It depends upon the type of mission and the risk that is being mitigated by the use of UTM for that mission. In some cases, that risk is significant enough that you do need a persistent connection or some other means of mitigating potential risks. For example, one of the services UTM provides is traffic information and deconfliction to prevent collisions between aircraft. However, if the likelihood or severity of such a collision is significant enough that use of the standard cellphone network is insufficient, you can employ things like satellite communication or vehicle-to-vehicle communication similar to ADS-B, or detect-and-avoid systems like computer vision or radar onboard the drone. So you have these backups and there need to be multiple layers of safety when the risk is significant enough. But in other cases, like if you’re flying within visual line of sight in today’s LAANC environment for example, the UTM system is really providing you with an authorization to fly within the very low controlled airspace where it’s highly unlikely that there are other aircraft flying there. The operator of that drone can obtain the authorization before the flight and operate the mission without a connection to the Internet safely because that person is responsible for maintaining a visual line of sight to the drone and assuring that no other aircraft in the area create a conflict. But there’s a large spectrum in between those two extremes. The number of safeguards necessary varies depending upon the risk of the mission.

Q: I have one more question. I’d like to talk about Urban Air Mobility or air taxis. None are commercially flying yet, drones are arriving first, in particular for Beyond Visual Line of Sight. It’s also quite possible that the first generation of air taxis will be piloted. And I believe, Ben, that you’re a pilot yourself. Now, you had mentioned ADS-B, my question is: How is AirMap planning for the integration, let’s say by the mid-2020s, of eVTOL [Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing] aircraft?

Ben Marcus: I started this company because I want people to be able to fly to work. So eVTOL aircraft are certainly top of mind for us and we have developed the foundational systems of UTM today serving drones, but with the long-term vision of providing services for the future Urban Air Mobility and other new novel use cases for aircraft. There are a series of innovations in technologies and procedures that have to come to the airspace before a high-scale Urban Air Mobility scenario is able to be executed. And those innovations in technologies and procedures span across every element of air navigation, from communication to navigation to surveillance and automation. And along this roadmap, in each of those categories, as a new capability is developed and deployed, a little bit more capacity in the airspace will be unlocked. So each of the things that we are doing every single day is unlocking a little bit more capacity. And ultimately we’ll get to a place where you can have a very high scale of eVTOLs flying around cities, so that people can commute to work without having to fight traffic.

Q: All right, Ben, thanks again for taking time with me today.

Ben Marcus: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much for calling me.