The Dichotomy that was 2020 unleashes “Impact Innovation”
Tragedy-induced awakening may be the best label for the year that was 2020. The year drug on in the mindlessness of repeating Groundhog Days, contrasted with a trepid, yet rapid surge of creativity. Covid-19 has caused and will cause much more untold anguish and loss while revealing many inherent challenges. The virus also unleashed a surge of “Impact Innovation”. The Advanced Mobility Collective (The Collective) was launched in 2020 and grew despite and because of this chaos. As is our original mission, we will continue to foster and drive Innovation that positively and equitably impacts our world in 2021 and beyond.
As the Executive Director of The Collective, I have been struck by three major themes this past year related to advanced mobility: a) True convergence yields efficiency; b) Unfettered market forces are less than perfect; and, c) A re-imagination of fundamental services is underway.
The convergence of data, voice, and video, via the common channel of the Internet, rapidly brought about new business models and unceremoniously ended many others. This occurred because the convergence led to incredible efficiencies and new avenues to market, while drastically reducing the overall costs. The convergence of new high-speed communications and data from the explosion of IoT technologies merged with new vehicles that leverage electrification and hydrogen fuel cells, offer a quantum leap forward to those bold enough to lock arms with other ecosystem partners. However, we are not quite there yet. Communications and data management technologies are a LONG way from the ubiquitousness of the internet. Vehicle manufacturers and the concomitant air and ground space management systems are far from reshaping our skies and roads. More importantly, the average person on the street has had little time to digest the possible and begin creating demand for services. So, while we speak of this convergence, it is all still quite theoretical, until meaningful services can be created that win the approval of those with dollars to spend. That being said, it is time to step on the gas and make the markets, working together as a system of systems.
Covid-19 demands brought in to sharp focus the digital divide in America. Standard market forces have left swaths in our cities and vast rural areas with less than necessary access to the standard service of Internet access. Telehealth, distance learning, and working from home are sadly not options for far too many. Multi-modal advanced mobility will depend upon this very same infrastructure. It is evident that traditional market forces have left far too many people and regions underserved. Closing the digital divide will require funding, commitment, and new public/private partnerships with an emphasis on bringing services to all. Impact Innovation that equitably serves all with advanced mobility demands a level digital playing field.
Parallel to Covid-19, 2020 also wrought record wildfires from Colorado through to the Pacific Northwest. Seemingly queued to last far beyond Covid-19. The urgency is growing to learn how to “manage nature at scale”. This ranges from forest management to prevention, firefighting, and restoration. With critical communications infrastructure in place and clear systems management, vehicles with ever-increasing autonomy can play a critical role from mapping to spotting, retardant application, people placement, and re-seeding.
Healthcare is now clearly a great candidate for systems with growing autonomy. Innovative testing is taking place with drugs, lab samples, and soon organ delivery via drone. Within three years, we could see a movement of professionals and supplies to critical locations via Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicles. The industry is constantly stretching and pushing the regulatory agencies beyond their comfort zone. There is a growing number of people willing and able to look into the future and imagine impact innovation.
The most effective answers will evolve as we cultivate a deeper understanding of the questions before us. - Jed Emerson
Another year of wisdom and the scars of Covid-19 have indeed led to a deeper understanding of the questions before us. Ultimately market forces and demand will drive the adoption of autonomous vehicles in the air and on the ground - or not. The Collective Staff, Partners, and Experts in Residence have grown to appreciate that the use of autonomous vehicles presents the largest challenge for regulators and hence widespread adoption. The Collective has taken the view of “moving toward autonomy” as the path of least resistance. Meanwhile, there is a LOT that can be achieved NOW. Communications and data infrastructure, coupled with the design and build of the physical landing and transfer structures are on the critical path, as are policy, mission operations, and multi-modal logistics. Existing and soon-to-be certified craft, such as short-range drones, piloted VTOLs, bots on the ground and more can serve as a proxy while we build out the critical infrastructure with real operations that can create value NOW. In parallel, our ecosystem will continue to drive toward advancing autonomy on top of this infrastructure. The regulators should be comforted with a sound and maturing infrastructure supporting autonomous missions.
The Advanced Mobility Collective and our Partners are determined to drive impact innovation. There is much to be done to develop the entire ecosystem toward eventual ubiquitous autonomous operations. Ending 2020, we have a deeper understanding of the questions before us. While we are all glad that 2020 is behind us, we now will look back upon this year appreciating the perspective gained.