In the last edition of the UAS Cluster Initiative’s newsletter we announced the selection of Craig Mahaney to be UASCI’s new Executive Director. We sat down with him to discuss what his vision is for our Growth Phase.
Jack: First, I would like to dig into your story a bit, it seems like most folks involved in the UAS industry have an interesting professional journey. How did you end up in this field?
Craig: That’s a great question! I think this career found me more than I searched it out. I spent my childhood in Kentucky and had no real connection to aviation other than hanging with my grandfather at the local airport to watch the airplanes land and takeoff. In the back of my mind, I must have considered being a professional pilot but didn’t really see a clear path to that as a teenager.
I attended college in my hometown and was feeling some wander lust, and a bit bored with school, so on a whim I decided to pop into the U.S. Navy recruiting office. After a conversation with the recruiter, I committed to training to become a Navy rescue swimmer and headed off to bootcamp. Through fate, or just a paperwork mess up, the proper administrative procedures had not been performed to confirm my class slot for rescue swimmer training and so I was forced to pick another job. One of the jobs offered to me was air traffic controller. I had no idea what that was, but someone in that personnel office convinced me it was the best choice, and so I signed on the dotted line. That began my 23-year odyssey in the aviation industry.
Jack: When you accepted the position as Executive Director, what was your major motivation?
Craig: My decision to leave the FAA and come on board with Development Capital Networks to run both UASCI and the DronePort network was a calculated decision. I have been extremely blessed with the career opportunities the FAA has afforded me. I was able to get a really clear picture of the aerospace landscape from many different vantage points. Over the past couple of years, I found myself being drawn to challenges that allowed me to use the broad range of aviation skills I had developed in a way that could provide real strategic leadership.
The opportunity to help shape and influence emerging aviation technology, poised to change the way the world works, travels and lives, was too enticing to pass up. The second motivation was my desire to support the people of Oklahoma in some way. My family and I had spent several years in the state when I was an air traffic control instructor at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, and we really fell in love with the culture and people. While I was working for the FAA as Chief of Staff in the Office of Aviation Policy and Planning in Washington DC, the agency had approved my request for remote work. With that, we packed up everything and moved back to Oklahoma City with plans to stay. Taking this position with UASCI and the DronePort Network meant my work would provide value to both our local community and a national audience.
Jack: The Cluster’s mission is to grow the UAS entrepreneurial ecosystem in Oklahoma through access to critical resources for young companies, helping them promote their products to potential customers, license technologies and access financing. What are some of the reasons the state is well positioned to be a leader in this industry?
Craig: That is a really important question. I think, historic aviation pedigree, favorable small business and regulatory environment, and cost of living, are three big ones. The state understands the aerospace ecosystem on a deep level. That means we have existing partnerships and networks, and the desire to expand as new emerging aviation technologies present themselves. Both UAS and Advanced Air Mobility are disruptive technologies that are pushing the limits of both public acceptance and established regulation. States that add additional burdens onto the industry will be passed over as these technologies are developed and tested. Oklahoma still possesses a pioneering spirit and I have faith it will keep the regulatory burden on businesses and industry low in order for those companies to thrive. Lastly, Oklahoma has a high quality of life and a low cost of living, both of which are huge drivers for companies seeking to expand.
Jack: If Oklahoma could do one thing right now to be a leader in the UAS industry, what would that be?
Craig: I have been talking with many industry leaders in the state, really smart people invested in this idea, and have begun to pick up on a couple of themes. I’m going to share two because I think they are equally important. There are quite a few states that say “we want to be leaders in the commercial UAS and Advanced Air Mobility industry.” What separates the serious from those interested in a sound bite is skin in the game. Industry does not expect state’s to be burdened with the lion’s share of the cost of developing and growing an emerging technology industry, but allocating significant financial resources to the cause shows commitment to the long game required to see industry success. Finding concrete pilot infrastructure programs supported by both state and private investment, in communities willing and able to support them, would be a great start.
The second is capital for start-ups and companies ready to expand. Historically, both angel investors and venture capital funding has focused on key tech environments like Silicon Valley and Boston. That is beginning to change, but resources in our region remain limited. We know there is a vast amount of wealth in our state and surrounding region to invest in the right technology and industry. Many of those investors understand oil and gas and traditional aviation but are hesitant to move into industries like UAS and Advance Air Mobility due to its level of maturity and the technical challenges. Educating that group of investors to the value and opportunities this industry provides would be extremely impactful to our capital resource problem.
Jack: Are there any last thoughts you would like to share?
Craig: Yes, as the Cluster enters the growth phase there are some industry challenges that we want to try and immediately tackle. The UAS ecosystem in the state is made up of business, government, tribal, investor and academic partners. UASCI will work to provide value by improving communication between these groups, increasing opportunities for meaningful collaboration and knowledge exchange.
Another challenge is industry growth timing and expectations. There is a strong desire from both public and private entities for the commercial UAS and Advanced Air Mobility industries to move beyond the testing stage and into the commercialization stage. There is also an equal amount of safety and regulatory hesitancy based on the inexperience with the technology and complexity of airspace integration. The successes of the traditional aerospace industry did not happen overnight and required a lot of risk, and even some failures that informed future rules and policies. We live in more densely populated and risk-averse culture than those early aviation pioneers. Success in this new emerging aviation technology will need to be seen through the “long game” lens. Based on my experience working in both the National Airspace System and the regulatory environment, I believe the Cluster can be an honest broker and key advisor for the Oklahoma UAS industry. This will also help the Cluster play a significant role in helping position companies and investors in Oklahoma to take advantage of the breakthroughs to come and make Oklahoma a beacon of opportunity to the UAS and Advanced Air Mobility community.
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