Drone Regulation and Safety with Zehra Akbar of SkyGrid

The Future of Supply Chain

By: Santosh Sankar & Matt McHugh

In our latest Future of Supply Chain Podcast episode, Santosh sat down for a chat with Zehra Akbar. Zehra is a certified drone pilot, Director of Strategy & Operations at SkyGrid, and Senior Manager of Strategic Operations at SparkCognition

SkyGrid is a joint venture between SparkCognition, an AI tech firm, and aircraft behemoth Boeing. Zehra was part of the team that created the concept and vision behind SkyGrid.

SkyGrid is an aerial operating system and manager grid for the drone industry that will offer AI-based route planning, in-flight monitoring and alerting, FAA/regulatory agency integration, automated route approvals, cybersecurity, protective maintenance, and more. 

“Depending on the number of drones you might have, the system will allow you to plan your flight, or it can autonomously plan multiple flights for you,” she says. “It can allow you to do airspace monitoring as your drone does in the sky; you can switch in between two drones.”

Drone technology promises supply chain innovation

According to Zehra, SkyGrid is working through a safety and security enablement vision in order to help companies start bringing drone technology into the supply chain industry. The integration will include the enablement of last-mile delivery and multimodal transportation. 

“Drone applications in the supply chain are immense and can range from manufacturing to warehousing and distribution,” Zehra says. 

SkyGrid hopes to eventually enable drone tech in the supply chain to make companies’ processes faster and more secure than ever before. 

Zehra says the SkyGrid team is aiming to enable millions of autonomous drones to operate within the supply chain, as well as other industries. Throughout the process, the team is working closely with the FAA, state, and local governments to develop and streamline drone regulations and safety standards.

Source: Skygrid

U.S. drone regulations and safety requirements

Zehra says regulators are taking a positive approach to advancing the drone ecosystem in a general sense while maintaining the need to move with caution. She says SkyGrid’s collaborative approach with government and industry entities aims to enable more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the sky. For example, the company has partnered with the TSA’s drone advisory committee while also working closely with government agencies.

“Regulation is being enacted and developed at the federal, state, and local levels,” she says. “The FAA regulations set the rules of what the airspace is, how you can perform your operations, what altitude you can fly at.” 

In addition, state and local governments have their own individual regulations for drone pilots in their area. Some governments dictate how you can fly your drone, what category your drone fits in, and how you can use it. Other states require drone pilots to register their UAV at city hall or the local courthouse. 

Despite the discrepancies in laws, Zehra says, “There’s a good collaboration between the federal, state, and local levels as the industry evolves.”

Key safety concerns for supply chain companies interested in incorporating drones

As drone technology emerges, stakeholders are still trying to understand its capabilities and how to frame the idea of drone safety. 

When it comes to regulation and safety, Zehra says companies should be aware of their local regulations like restrictions on flight altitude, authorized and unauthorized airspace, and whether they need to get an additional waiver to fly at certain sites. 

Companies will also want to consider how to handle a malfunctioning drone in the sky, and the privacy implications of having cameras attached to drones that may fly through residential areas.

“Companies such as ours are thinking about all these things and try to come up with the best solutions to enable this technology, but also to maintain security and do it in the best way possible,” Zehra says.

The future of the drone industry

As the drone industry evolves and continues to grow, it will gain more acceptance as an innovative new frontier in the supply chain and beyond. Until then, Zehra says the industry is working painstakingly to bring clarity to regulations and safety standards. 

“Getting drone approvals is a really detailed process right now,” she says. “And to actually fly your flight, you have to create a safety use case. Those are the kinds of things that the industry is working to solve.”

“For there to be mass adoption, it's really about having the intersection of all three areas: regulation, social acceptance, and technology.” 

Despite the current challenges, she believes we’ll be seeing more drones in the sky soon.

“The airspace will eventually open up, and it will become an easier process for multiple companies to access drone capability for themselves,” she says.

Click here to listen to the full episode.