Among other things, Kirwan McHarry helped standardize drone serial numbers

Your background:

I began flying before I could walk, in the days before passenger airliners had radar. When I was old enough to wonder what was keeping us in the air, I began reading, starting with Wolfgang Langewiesche’s classic Stick and Rudder, Linda Pendleton’s Flying Jets and Jim Webb and William Walker’s Fly the Wing. They helped me better understand the principles of flight and how flight is organized in our national airspace system. 

How did you get started in the drone industry?

About four years ago, I was working for a company that introduced a small consumer drone. I got involved in safety and industry initiatives, such as the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST), an industry-government partnership committed to ensuring safe operations of unmanned aircraft systems.

I’m currently co-chair of the UAST’s Flight Control working group. We’re developing a safety enhancement for UAS return to launch flight mode. As a member of the Consumer Technology Association’s Drone Standards Working Group, I co-wrote an ANSI-certified standard for drone serial numbers. I also contributed to the “Voluntary Best Practices for UAS Privacy, Transparency, and Accountability” guidelines released by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration.

Tell us about your organization and role there:

I work for Drones by US, where I do government and press relations and anything else that needs doing. Members of our team come from backgrounds in aviation, model aircraft, photography, and outdoor activities. Common to us all is a passion for flight in all of its forms.

We design, source, and sell high-performance small unmanned aircraft systems. We make consumer friendly flight platforms for work and play. We employ cutting-edge technologies such as visual-inertial odometry (VIO) navigation for greater accuracy in “follow me” tracking and obstacle avoidance along a return flight path. Up to now consumer UAS have relied on positioning satellites like GPS, along with a compass and barometer, to know where they are. VIO looks toward the ground, not the sky. It enables a drone to literally see where it is in relation to its surroundings.

We partner with High Great Innovation Technology Development Company, a leading manufacturer of advanced small (under 55 lb.) fixed wing and quadcopter aircraft. We’re working together to help create the future of UAS flight. 

Industry Experience:

What do you like best about being in the UAS industry?

It’s an exciting place to be. Unmanned aircraft save lives. They count endangered species and find new ones in places scientists can’t reach. They bring fun to recreational flyers. They’ve all but replaced manned helicopters for many tasks.

Based on registration data, the FAA forecast a compound annual growth rate for hobbyist drones of around 40%, reaching more than 2.4 million drones by 2022. For commercial and civil government drones the FAA predicted more than 450,000 drones in use by then. Goldman Sachs forecast a $38 billion addressable market for non-military drones by next year.

This tremendous market acceptance and great potential underscore the need for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system.

Part of this is developing safety enhancements, intervention strategies to prevent or mitigate problems associated with accident causes. They encompass procedures, training, and equipment. Think of them as the building blocks of aviation safety.

Safety enhancements helped reduced the fatality rate of commercial air travel in the U.S. by more than 83 percent over the period 1997-2007. They’re only now being developed for unmanned aircraft as part of the work of the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team. It’s immensely satisfying to be part of this effort.

Do you have a success story you would like to share?

The ANSI-certified standard for drone serial numbers that I co-authored has been adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation. It’s also being adapted by the ASTM, an international standards organization, for its Remote ID standard, which will be considered by the FAA for implementation in the U.S. Remote ID in the U.S. is long overdue. It’s considered by many as the key to routine flight beyond visual line of sight under Part 107.

What excites you the most about the potential for women in the industry?

I see a lot more women in senior positions at commercial drone shows than I did at computer industry shows in the 1990s, which is great. But what’s truly thrilling is the potential of drones to attract middle- and high-school age girls to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  (STEM).  Drone mastery may become as important to STEM as computer literacy.

The problem is, girls do as well as boys in STEM subjects at school but fewer women than men pursue careers in them as adults. Drones may become an important way to spark and maintain girls’ interest in STEM.

Drones are in essence data collection tools. They’ve become integral to gathering aerial data for research and management in biological sciences, agriculture, construction, land use and mapping, and many more areas. They’re also a lot of fun to learn to fly.

It’s my hope young girls will gain confidence from flying drones in school, mastering an aerial vehicle, acquiring piloting skills they will use later in life when they’re designing research, interpreting large data sets and running projects, whether they’re piloting drones themselves or managing people and organizations that do.

What You’ve Learned:

Is there a tip you’ve learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?

Be creatively persistent. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Make a compelling initial case, then keep coming back with new reasons for why you need what you want.