Grant Jordan has the right stuff in experience and education to make our airspace safe.
After graduating from MIT, he joined the U.S. Air Force as an officer where one of the jobs he was tasked with was working with the U.S. Department of Defense testing counter-drone measures.
“We saw everything possible you can throw at a small drone – bullets, missiles, lasers, radar jammers – just every possible thing,” he said, adding that the Air Force learned stopping drones was a difficult problem to solve and one that has gotten more difficult over time. “We’re now in an environment where the level of capability of just off-the-shelf consumer drones surpasses what we were using on the military side at the time.”
After the Air Force, Jordan completed a graduate school program at UC San Diego in security and cryptography before founding a security consulting firm with some classmates from MIT. But as the threat from increasing numbers of drones grew, the team switched gears and founded SkySafe – a technology solution to track and manage drone traffic on a regionwide scale.
Drone Traffic Control
The SkySafe system uses special sensors – manufactured in-house in San Diego – that detect the signals and transmissions put out by drones as they fly. The company’s software system then tracks the locations of the drones and notifies its clients of any approaching drones that could pose a threat to safety. Jordan, the company’s CEO, likened the SkySafe system to Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast used in commercial aviation to track aircraft in airspace.
“Essentially what we’re doing is building out the same sort of infrastructure, but for drones,” he said.
Building the infrastructure for drone traffic monitoring and control is evolving alongside drone use cases, starting with protecting the airspace above sensitive areas like airports, prisons or the border, Jordan said.
“But the big thing for us is not just trying to track the bad drones, it’s really about monitoring the entire air space, it’s about coordinating the use of that airspace by all different parties,” he added.
Making airspace safer for all types of drone users is also a goal of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporations (EDC), who counts SkySafe as one of the organization’s investor companies. Teddy Martinez, EDC senior research manager, pointed out that the FAA reports over 1.3 million people in the U.S. with a registered drone pilot license and that there are many more drones that are unregistered.
“As more people get their hands on technology like drones, a company like SkySafe serves the area well to have that airspace awareness,” he said. “We’ve seen this recently at a Padres game where a drone flew into the stadium. Obviously that has some public safety implications and general safety concerns. SkySafe has the potential to equip the city with the tools to address those concerns.”
Martinez added that the EDC is currently working on a study looking at AI and machine learning as it applies to smart cities.
“SkySafe’s technology adds to that agenda of smart city efforts around safety,” he said.
Broader Commercial Goals
That agenda for a smart city with safer airspace is further along in San Diego than anywhere else.
“San Diego is the first to have a city-wide drone detection sensor network and that’s thanks to SkySafe,” said Katie Chaires, EDC economic development manager for defense and tech. “Hopefully other cities can leverage this comprehensive airspace awareness.”
That process is already underway in markets around the world. “We’ve got a fast ramping up of coverage areas we’re trying to do,” Jordan said.
The long-term goal for these networks is the eventual adoption of a national unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM) system where different parties can communicate with each other and data providers like SkySafe provide info on where all the drones are. Once the UTM is in place, Jordan said, the airspace will be ready for more intensive commercial uses for drones, like Amazon deliveries, or continuous mapping and traffic information by Google.
“That’s the idea,” he said. “Instead of thinking about monitoring drones as, ‘I need coverage over the prison, or the airport, or the stadium,’ instead it’s, ‘monitor the entire airspace and then provide that data to each of those particular customers that are within it.’”
Jordan even sees a role for SkySafe’s eventual monitoring of Advanced Air Mobility vehicles like air bikes or taxis which are configured like drones.
Bridging Two Worlds
“That’s where it bridges the two worlds of manned aircraft and drones,” he said. “We’re still a long way off from that, but before you can even start to think about drones carrying human beings, you’ve already got to have the foundational stuff evolved. You’ve got to have the infrastructure of making sure you know where all the non-human-carrying drones are going to be.”
The ability to patrol drone actions is also important in loosening the regulations that make commercial drone applications difficult to adopt.
“At the very start of the drone industry, because there was no possible way to have any enforcement, the default rule was basically ‘you can’t fly within miles of these places’ – they had to do big radiuses around critical facilities and say, ‘no drones at all,” Jordan said. “But once you can track the drones and have accountability for peoples’ actions, then you can start to narrow in those rules.”
A well monitored airspace will also help change public perception of drones, Jordan added, because accountability will reduce the public’s suspicion of drones, knowing there is a way to patrol bad actors.
“It’s about building that public trust,” he said.
CEO: Grant Jordan
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
BUSINESS: Developer of drone monitoring networks
NOTABLE: SkySafe has made San Diego the first city
to have a citywide drone monitoring system in place.