Making Good Choices in a Fast Moving Drone Field

In this episode, I talk with Miriam McNabb, the editor-in-chief of Drone Life about how we can best deal with a rapidly evolving drone industry with growing pains while trying to make good hardware, software, and training choices at the same time.

Be sure to subscribe to the site emails so you don’t miss any upcoming episodes.


Intro (00:00):
You’re listening to public safety flight, your source of real world, actionable aviation information for fire departments, police departments, and law enforcement agencies. This is the critical information. You need to be an exceptional pilot and to save lives with flight. And now your host public safety chief pilot Steve road.

Steve Rhode (00:22):
Hi, this is Steve Rhode, your friendly chief pilot here at the public safety flight and website. Be sure to visit to get in on my private email list, read all the latest posts or ask me all of your public safety, drone questions. That’s P S Or if that trips you up, you can land in the right place by using

Steve Rhode (00:48):
Mary McNabb is the talented editor in chief of drone life and indispensable site of drone industry information. She’s also responsible for job for that helps new commercial drone businesses find customers. Miriam has a PhD and just being a nice person. And it’s a pleasure to have her here with us today. Miriam. Welcome. Thank you so much for having me, Steve. That was a great podcast of a public safety drone flight, and hopefully it’s not a series of one. I’m honored to be the first. So let’s talk about the drone industry with your background in high tech. Cause you have I don’t want to age anything. You have, you have critical it’s more than 25 years with your background in the high-tech industry. What are some of the hurdles that all fast-growing industries face as they mature? Yeah, this is such an interesting question.

Miriam McNabb (01:56):
I was that kind of really excited about it when you proposed some of the topics that we’re going to cover today because it really is the drone industry has been so interesting to follow. We started back in 2013 and over the last, you know, just seven, eight years, seeing things change and develop. We’re really at this, this critical breaking point. And one of the industries that I find really fascinating to compare the drone industry to is the automotive industry. And so if you look back at some of the things that the automotive industry went through from its inception, we saw originally a huge number of manufacturers shrink down to a very small number of manufacturers. As standardization came in, we saw regulations where the regulations were really designed to eliminate risk and had nothing to do with the CA of the new technology.

Miriam McNabb (03:03):
And it took a long time for those to expand. We saw the need for developed infrastructure. So in the automotive industry, it took 60 years between the time the first car hit the road and the time the DMV was invented, you know, so we asked him the drone industry all the time, who’s going to enforce these things, how who’s going to manage all these things. You know, we got six guys at the FAA who are working 24 seven, and it’s, it’s really tough as all of these new things come on board and, and it’s, and it’s just all their responsibility. So that kind of regulatory infrastructure needs to happen. We had gas stations and repair stations and a system of licensing and a system of inspection and a system of, of testing and training, new people to get their driver’s licenses. Those took a long time to develop to the point where we have a system and everybody kinda understands too.

Steve Rhode (04:05):
I’m old enough now that I, I remember when seatbelts became mandatory, remember everyone who was like, I am not wearing a seatbelt or buckle it behind them, you know, like I’m gonna show the man I’m not gonna wear it. And it’s very similar to what I see the industry facing today with like remote ID.

Miriam McNabb (04:30):
Yes. Yeah. And so I think that we’re really in this, in this developmental period. And it’s tough to say because I know that for a lot of providers and a lot of businesses, you know, they, they need these regulations to happen fast. They need type certification to happen fast. They need these things to be developed as quickly as possible. But at the same time, you know, if you compare it to the automotive industry, we’re moving fast, you know, we are still maintaining an excellent safety record in the industry. Things are really moving along quickly, but we are just in that developmental period where there isn’t a lot of data to use. You can’t just take a thousand pieces of data and hand it to an actuary and say, Hey, run the numbers on how heavy, you know, carbon fiber versus plastic run the numbers on parachute versus no parachute. We don’t have those points of data yet. And, and that’s just necessarily a time-consuming process.

Steve Rhode (05:37):
So what do you think it takes for a public safety agency to be a smart consumer and an explosive really growing market? I mean, how, how do they determine what is a smart investment in hardware, software or pilot education when it seems to change month by month?

Miriam McNabb (05:55):
So I’m going to tell you something that I know from our previous conversations that you’re going to agree with. I hope you could go agree with you gotta reach out and work with other agencies who have already done it. And I’ll tell you a little story to, to illustrate this point. But you know, I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of different people in the industry. And one gentleman was telling me about a public safety agency in North America who had purchased first and trained later. And they had purchased an extreme two extremely expensive pieces of hardware. Beautiful, big that a lot of people would have absolutely loved to get their hands on. And they had big plans for these, although they had never used them before. So they sent two guys to, to training and they both got their FAA part one Oh seven certificates.

Miriam McNabb (07:07):
And then the mayor came out and they did a demonstration of the drones for the first time in front of the town hall. And within two minutes they had crashed a five figure cost drone into the side of the town hall in front of the local newspaper. And the mayor is going to take a long, long time for that public safety drone program to recover. So buying the hardware first and doing the training later is really a bad idea. I think that people really need to look into used drones, look into exactly what they’re trying to do. The other thing is, is, is to know exactly what you’re trying to do and where you are, because, you know, if, if you live in a waterfront community and you’re trying to do water rescues or monitoring the coastline, or some of those activities, it’s very different than if you live in a inner city environment and you’re trying to track bad guys, or if you’re trying to document crime scenes, or if you’re working with accident scenes, you really need to know what you’re going to do first before you decide what you need.

Miriam McNabb (08:23):
And if I were you at, buy used equipment, get the training done, and then invest.

Steve Rhode (08:32):
Public safety agencies and pilots tell the difference between marketing hype, right? There’s there seems to be a big industry in hype in that you go to conferences and everyone is like, everything’s rosy. And then you listen to the manufacturers and see the ads and stuff and read the press releases and everything’s, but besides talking to another agency, any advice about how people figure out what reality is,

Miriam McNabb (09:03):
I think that they really need to do some, some research and, you know, Steve, this is something I learned from you just yesterday, you know, thermal imaging. So I, I actually love looking at the uses for thermal imaging. Thermal imaging is, is just kind of amazing. It’s sort of fascinating, but I live in New Hampshire. So I was totally unaware that if I’m all decked out in my warm clothing, which I’m going to be, if I get lost in the mountains in February, I will be wearing all kinds of, of winter clothing that the thermal imaging equipment isn’t going to find to me. And I don’t know why I didn’t think of that, but that’s something I just learned from you. And so I think that that’s a question of not just looking at the, the use cases and the applications where someone says, we found someone in a mountain rescue, you know, that it also doesn’t work perfectly through trees.

Miriam McNabb (10:04):
Right. Okay. So, so somebody says we, we did search and rescue. Okay. Well, if, if you, again are in New Hampshire where I am almost everything is trees. If somebody lost it’s because it lost in the trees, you know, but if somebody lost on the water, that’s a totally different scenario. So you have to not just look at the use cases that are publicized, but look at the use cases that most closely mirror, what you are trying to do. And that means what your environment is, what your climate is like the level of skill that you have available, what the distances are. You know, if you’re in a, if you’re in an urban environment versus a rural environment, all of those things make a difference.

Steve Rhode (10:51):
It’s interesting that when you look at many of the videos that I have seen about our wonderful drone search and rescue success story, it’s usually finding someone in an open field, right?

Miriam McNabb (11:04):
Yes. My favorite when they found the little boy in his dog, in a cornfield, the dog was all snuggled up next to her. I mean, that is, that is just media bliss right there. You’ve got the cute little boy and the dog and everything, but it was in a field.

Steve Rhode (11:19):
My favorite story is a one night I got called out for a perp That was a jump and run and the police were looking for him and they said, he’s in this open field. So I’m flying the thermal camera over the open field. And I mean, there’s deer, cows, horses. I mean everything. And there was this target. They said, I’m sure that he’s all curled up and he’s just hiding. So there was this target that could have possibly been a guy. So they, they crept in with their long guns and they were, they were cornering target. And that poor Fox

Miriam McNabb (11:59):
Note to self I’m just gonna, next time, I’m on the run, curl up next to a horse.

Steve Rhode (12:06):
Well, I was with a leading thermal camera manufacturer and they were telling me about how their, their new 15, $20,000 camera, it was going to find everybody. I mean, this thing is incredible. It’s the latest thing out. It’s the best technology I said, okay I’m going to hide. And then you tell me if you can find me and the guy said, I’ll take you up on that bet. So I took two steps back and stood under a tree.

Miriam McNabb (12:36):
Yeah. And it’s not to take anything away from me. It is a fantastic thing, but it’s just really critical that people understand what it can do in their specific environment might not be what they expect. Exactly.

Steve Rhode (12:55):
The other thing that always makes me chuckle is you need a thermal camera for house fires. Like the house is on fire. You don’t need me in the air to tell you,

Steve Rhode (13:13):
Anyway, I digress. So from covering the drone industry, as you have, what is one bit of information you think all drone pilots should have known before they started flying?

Miriam McNabb (13:26):
So I’m gonna say something that I actually this is a little bit scary to me. So we’re going to get this out of there. And this is maybe not what you’re you want to hear, but the one piece of thing that I really wish every drone pilot knew before they started playing was that there are drone regulations. And I know you’re saying that, but in in my life, because you know, I really love my job. My husband and I worked together at drone life and, and this is kind of our world. Any time we see anybody out flying whether we’re on vacation or we’re at the beach or where you know, I can’t help myself. I always go over and say, hello. I ask what they’re flying. I ask. And I have to say this, Steve, in my professional life, everybody knows everybody has a certification or, or thinks about it in my personal life. I have yet to meet a single person, flying a drone who knew that they needed a license. You are frightening, but it’s true. We’re still there.

Speaker 4 (14:47):
It’s liike that in public safety. So one sheriff told me that the reason why his department pursued the Koa so they could self-certify their pilots was because he got so frustrated with his pilots, not being able to pass the Part 107 exam. Yeah. That’s not good.

Miriam McNabb (15:09):
So this is, this is really an issue is that, you know, the FAA has, has really tried incredibly hard to say, listen, if you’re in the air, you are an aviator, right. That’s the deal. And, and do you fall under these things, but, but for some reason that has just not gotten out to the public. So people who are not in the aviation industry, who are not in the drone industry really don’t know that. And everybody that I’ve met, who is flying a drone, and some of them are very, very nice drones. There are small, but some of them are really nice. And I’ve had somebody say, yeah, I’m practicing. Cause I’m thinking I’m gonna, I’m gonna open a business and no idea that there’s any regulation at all. We have jobs for drones. We require people to be part when I was seven certified. And, and I’ve had just an incredible number of people say, well, you know, I’m a roofer. I just use it for my own business. It’s not a separate thing. So I don’t need my part when I was seven. So there’s a lot of real misinformation out there. That’s the one thing I wish everybody who flew a drone knew,

Steve Rhode (16:18):
Well, you hit on a great topic, which is making sure that you are qualified because the drone industry is part of the FAA responsibility for regulation. And there are a whole lot of new people that are coming in that I love to call accidental aviators. They never wanted to be pilots according to the FAA, they just wanted to fly the drone. So they lack just through exposure, the information they need to really be good qualified pilots. So as a, a manned aircraft pilot, I spent countless hours with an instructor you know, demonstrating my capabilities as a pilot passing check rides, going through difficult exams meeting tough yearly recurrency or every two years. And my accidental aviator friends just have to take a written test. And while many of them complained that they have to take a written test, it’s one test. And so if we can’t get across that hurdle, at least, you know, maybe you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t be in the air, but I hear you.

Miriam McNabb (17:35):
Yeah. And you know, there, there really is an issue. And again, I’ll go back to kind of the automotive industry comparison here is that the, the FAA is in charge of all the aircraft in, in the sky. And the U S has a high volume of traffic in the airspace, but it’s very difficult to scale that to the anticipated volume of drone traffic. You know, when you’re talking about one pilot flying, you know, one aircraft or a share in an aircraft or, you know, aircraft that have to go in and out of specific infrastructure locations, those just that those are not limitations that the drone industry have. And when you talk about drone fleets, you know, you could have one guy, technically you can have one guy flying 3000 drones at a time. So we really need to kind of work out how those certification processes are going to scale because it, it doesn’t work exactly the same way.

Steve Rhode (18:44):
So it’s so easy now for anyone to sell a product for a drone, since it doesn’t have to pass any designer’s safety standard. So how do public safety agencies with difficult budgets get the truth about what is the smart thing to purchase? How do you tell, right? How do you tell a slick ad from a bad product?

Miriam McNabb (19:08):
Right. it’s, it’s very difficult. And I think that one you know, I’ll go back to collaborating and joining every public safety organization that you can and talking to as many different people as you can in the industry, because I think that’s, that’s really the, the primary way to do it. But I also think that you’ve got to go out there into the virtual world and do that same work. So you’ve got to think about what your needs are beyond just hardware to hardware is, is great. And we already talked about that, you know, it has to be the right tool for the job, but you know, how much support are you realistically going to need? Do you think that you do have a lot of new pilots and one of them is going to crash, crash it, and you’re going to need to send that out for repair, and you’re going to need to get it back.

Miriam McNabb (20:07):
You know, do you share hardware between fire and police in your community? How, how are you doing that? Because there’s some products that may have great reputations, but their support and repair policies are not as good. And there are other products which you may not have heard of, but they’re supplying the training and the repairs and the support that you’re really gonna need going forward. So you have to kind of look at the big picture, read all the reviews and again, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. There are a lot of organizations out there now. There are a lot of public safety there’s podcasts like this one, and, you know, people need to kind of do their research before they invest, especially because they have a responsibility it’s public funding. And you know, the community wants to see a return on that investment.

Steve Rhode (21:07):
When I pointed out to pilots that ultimately they are personally responsible for the actions they take in the air as pilot in command and the no agency or say to your state can shield them from their civil liability. Generally they say to me, what,

Miriam McNabb (21:24):
Yeah, that makes people very nervous, right. But it’s like driving a car. It really is. I mean, if you hit someone when you drive a car and it’s because of, of your own fault, you know, even if you happen to be driving a police car, that’s not necessarily going to save.

Steve Rhode (21:42):
Yeah. We’re here in North Carolina. If I’m responding to an emergency and I have lights and sirens on, and I’m involved in an accident, I am personally responsible. Wow. Yeah. So that’s scary stuff. So here is the, the core question that I approached you about initially. So here’s the core question I wanted to ask you today. The drone industry is facing a shift from the current consumer electronics drones to drones that will be certified, actually certified airworthy and safe to fly by the FAA. So how do you see this transitioning as the current drones will have more and more restrictions on flight, but the new ones will require a big investment, but to have more capabilities.

Miriam McNabb (22:28):
Yeah. I think that this really has two sides to it. There’s kind of this, the manufacturing side. What’s going to happen to the industry on that side. And there’s the consumer side. And I think in many ways, it’s going to make it easier for consumers while things will maybe cost more. They will have that sort of confidence that what they’re purchasing is actually going to be safe for the application that they want to use it for. So you know, right now we tell people, do your research, do your research, do your research. It’s largely a buyer beware market out there. You know, there really isn’t this kind of good housekeeping seal of approval that says this is a safe vehicle for, for your particular application on the manufacturer side. You know, I think this is going to be kind of a bumpy ride.

Miriam McNabb (23:24):
It’s this is a necessary change, but it’s a difficult one. So as I said before, we don’t have 50 years of data on drone delivery in urban areas to just hand over and say, okay, we’ve run the numbers. Here’s, here’s what the standards should be. The good news is that there’s a lot of appetite to get this done. There are a lot of partners willing to help you know, you and I had the opportunity to meet some of the people that fly tracks last week. And, and they are waiting very anxiously for these types certification standards and definitions to be clarified, you know, just give us a standard so we can meet them and move on. And they feel that the lack of the standard is really kind of holding their business back. But, you know, there was a good reason why the first companies to get the part one 35 certification to operate commercial drone delivery were Google wing and, and ups because they were big enough to make that really long-term investment, which is very difficult for startups to say to their investors, you know, Hey, we’re, our plan is to be completely unprofitable for seven or eight years until this becomes legal.

Miriam McNabb (24:42):
You know, we’re just going to pour money into this research. That’s a tough sell. And again, you know, if you look at the automotive industry the first company car company in the U S was one nobody had ever heard of Juriah juror year or something like that, it was started in 1895. And the next 20 years, there were almost 2000 manufacturers and they were producing more than 3000 different makes of cars. So everybody was producing their own things, slightly different marketed for different per purchase. Each one of them trying to make something, you know, a little bit better, a little different use. 25 years later by 1920, the standards have been developed. And now there are three big manufacturers in the U S hundred years after that today, the entire world, the vast majority of the automobile manufacturing controlled by 14 companies in the entire tire world.

Steve Rhode (25:45):
Well, aren’t we seeing that already because now that some companies are going towards type certification, it’s interesting that some big recognizable names are not pursuing that at all.

Miriam McNabb (25:58):
Yes. So, very interesting to see how that is going to evolve and what’s going to happen. I mean, now here’s, it, here’s a, an interesting thing here would be my biggest fear. If I were a manufacturer, those same few car manufacturers are sniffing around the drone industry. If I were a drone near manufacturer today, I’d be worried that some of those manufacturing giants are just kind of waiting out that 20 year period. And then they’ll say, okay, boys, we’ll take it from here. We got it. You know, they’ll start building drones because they already have this, this sort of manufacturing powerhouse. But I do think it’s going to be a bumpy ride for these manufacturers, many great manufacturers that I’ve met are still very small shops. It’s really served them well to be very small shops. They’ve been able to, you know, kind of build and, and not have to make huge profits right away. And they’ve developed great products, but now if, if type certification ends up requiring a big change in manufacturing, a big, a big shift for them, we may see some consolidation and some changes happening. So I think there’s going to be a lot of changes in the drone industry over the next 10 years as because it’ll take, I don’t think it’s going to be immediate for those type certifications for all the different applications to be published and, and be worked out.

Steve Rhode (27:34):
So, you know, I love getting the email updates from drone life. I look forward to those in my inbox, and in fact, my inbox is generally so packed, but when I see the email coming from drone life, like click besides the excellent, which I suggest everyone visit and subscribe to the newsletter, get the emails. Do you have any other suggestions where people can go to get real-world information?

Miriam McNabb (28:06):
I do, you know, there are the, the drone media industry is, is a really an open thing. And, and we see each other at all the shows we really get along, we collaborate. And so I’m happy to recommend some other great sources, you know, commercial drone professional is a great source. Commercial UAV expo is a large show, but they publish their own newsletter, which is excellent. Inter drone also has some excellent podcasts and news available. So a lot of those shows AVSI has a lot of programs and the, the local AVSI chapters are great places to kind of ask you know, you and I have have met on the North Carolina AVSI, let’s talk drones chat rooms, those are free, open to everybody. And a great place to ask questions. Drone responders is specifically for public safety people.

Miriam McNabb (29:09):
So I really think that this is a case where don’t limit yourself to to one source, go out follow everything on Twitter, follow everything, everything on Facebook, and kind of dive in and, and get into the conversation because you will find that many, many people are asking the same questions that you are in a drone life. We’re trying to answer as many of those as we can with our friends in the field, like but every publication is answering a different question. So you know, spread the love and but definitely dive in and try to be part of the conversation first, before you invest in hardware before you even really invest in the kind of flight training and so forth that you’re going to need.

Steve Rhode (30:04):
So I’m going to have to give myself a shameless plug too, because I have a website, public safety flight. So PS, and I’m always out there

Miriam McNabb (30:15):
And you’re the guy, he’s the guy answering all my questions. So you could just go straight to the source, public safety plate.

Speaker 2 (30:24):
All right. Anything else that I didn’t cover that you want to say? I always hate that question by the way.

Miriam McNabb (30:30):
I, you know what, I have a tendency to be boring. I miss, because I always say, you know, my, my bio says I’m just a sort of fascinated industry observer, and this has just been such a fun job for me because there’s new things happening all the time. There’s new technology that comes across my desk. So I really, I just can’t wait to see what happens next.

Speaker 2 (30:54):
Hi, this is Steve Rhode, your friendly chief pilot here at the public safety flight website. Be sure to visit to get in on my private email list, read all the latest posts or ask me all of your public safety, drone questions. That’s P S Or if that trips you up, you can land in the right place by using