Talking Michigan Transportation

What the heck is an aerial mobility corridor?

January 07, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 87
Talking Michigan Transportation
What the heck is an aerial mobility corridor?
Show Notes Transcript

This week, in the wake of an announcement about a first-of-its-kind cross-border initiative to test the feasibility of commercial drone use, Bryan Budds, deputy administrator of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) Office of Aeronautics, explains the project. 

Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that Michigan and Ontario are collaborating on a technology initiative involving unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones. This effort involves studying the feasibility of a commercial drone skyway in three proposed areas, including an international connection between Michigan and Ontario, southeast Michigan, and any other suitable location in the state. 

The effort is a partnership between MDOT, Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, and Ontario government agencies. 

Calling it a “highway in the sky,” Budds talks about myriad opportunities to explore the future of drone technology and what it could mean to commerce and the delivery of goods. He also discusses the challenging questions facing regulators as they work to balance privacy, security, safety, and innovation. 

Budds also talks about how this initiative follows on other cross-border collaboration between the governments of Michigan and Ontario for demonstrations involving automated vehicles. 

Other relevant links:

Podcast image is NASA's new concept image for Advanced Air Mobility. Image courtesy of NASA and can be found at


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: This week, in the first podcast of 2022, I'll be speaking with Bryan Budds, who's the deputy administrator of MDOT's Office of Aeronautics. He's part of a team of officials in Michigan and Ontario, Canada who have been working on a very innovative program to test the feasibility of commercial drones and other aerial systems. So, thank you, Bryan, for taking time to do this.

Bryan Budds: Thanks, Jeff, for having us.

Cranson: So, talk a little bit about your background and, you know, what you did before taking this role at MDOT and now what you do in that role.

Budds: Sure, so I always have to give kudos to my parents for supporting my aviation habit even as a young kid in high school. So, my career in aviation, I’d like to think, started when I earned my private pilot license just before going to high school, and I always had an interest in public policy and airport policy and mixing those two things. So, as my career progressed, I had the opportunity to go out to a couple of aviation associations out in Washington D.C. while I finished my educational career. I had the opportunity to spend some time on Capitol Hill and a couple of other aviation organizations all looking at aviation policy, the future of airports, the future of aviation, and we completed some great work on that front. And then I had the great opportunity to come back home to Michigan to join MDOT and the great team at the Office of Aeronautics.

Cranson: So, did you say before high school you got your pilot's license?

Budds: Yeah, early in high school. I was one of those in the aviation world, the nerdy kids, that got their pilot license right before they got their driver's license, so I was one of those people.

Cranson: What age are you allowed to solo?

Budds: Oh, you're testing my memory now. You can solo, I believe, when you're 15. You can solo when you're 15, and you get your license when you're 16. So, if the stars align correctly, you get your license your pilot license and your driver's license on the same day.

Cranson: That's really cool. Clearly you had a passion and you followed it, so—

Budds: It's been a fun ride so far. That's for sure.

Cranson: Well, talk a little bit more, before we get into the UAS announcement and what it means, about MDOT's Aeronautics program. A lot of people outside of the transportation world don't even know that the State Department of Transportation has an Aeronautics unit. So, what do you do? What's involved? What's the role in regulation and other things?

Budds: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for that question. So, Michigan’s got a unique aviation heritage in that way back in 1939, the state legislature at the time established the Michigan Aeronautics Commission to help guide aviation development in the state. As time progressed on, it morphed into a partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation that withstood the test of time up until now, which is very exciting for us. Really, there are a couple of great services that the office provides to the state and others on a couple of different fronts. So, one of our big core missions is airport development in the state. There are about 18 or 19 primary commercial service airports that we support in a variety of ways on infrastructure development and supporting some of the federal grants that come their way. We also help those airports with air carrier recruitment and retention to provide good, strong air service across the state commercial air service. Also, we've got a great team that looks at a number of the safety oversight things that provide a good, strong aviation system in the state. So, that includes things like airport inspection and overseeing flight schools that are providing flight training in the state. It also includes some even lesser-known things that include our tall structure permitting process to ensure safe approaches into and out of facilities, that the trees, power lines, and other things are put in the appropriate places in the vicinity of airports, which is incredibly important as we all know. And I think there's a good group of other aviation technical experts that have now sort of morphed into some of our drone project specialists as well and that maintain and operate a number of navigational aids, including weather stations across the state. So, there are about 41 weather stations located at airports across Michigan that not only provide critical information to pilots that are in the area utilizing those airports and providing access to those airports in less than perfect weather, but a lot of that weather data also feeds into the national system that shows up on your local newscast. When they're picking, you know, locations across the state and tell you the temperature, it's usually coming from one of those sites, which is always fun for us. Really, we've got a great group of aviation specialists, engineers, and folks that are really dedicated to helping the aviation industry and transportation overall in Michigan.

Cranson: So, is your relationship with the FAA analogous, do you think, to what the department's highways program is with the Federal Highway Administration in terms of administering funds and kind of acting as their regulatory fiduciary in a lot of matters? Does it quite line up that way, or is it more complicated than that?

Budds: Yeah, it's a great question. It’s very similar. There's a small separation between the larger airports and what we call the smaller general aviation airports. The relationship we have with FAA is very similar to Federal Highway for those smaller airports through what we call the block grant arrangement where really, we are acting as FAA for most of those airports in terms of safety over site, capital infrastructure development, things like that. The relationship's a little bit different on the primary airports where we really are acting, because of some requirements in state law, as the agent for those commercial service airports with the FAA. So, a lot of those financial resources that flow to primary airports flow through MDOT, and we provide some additional financial support on that front. So, it depends little bit on the airport type, but there's a lot of similarity there.

Cranson: Okay, good. That makes sense. So, let's talk about Wednesday’s announcement. And, you know, it's significant not just because of what it will mean to the future of unmanned aircraft and commercial uses but because of the partnerships between government agencies in Michigan and the province of Ontario and the private sector. Why would you say it's important for the state of Michigan to support this endeavor?

Budds: I think it's incredibly important. It's incredibly exciting for us as a group of aviation folks within our office. I think part of that strength really comes from the group that you mentioned. We've got folks from across the different modes within MDOT. We've got folks from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and all our colleagues over in Ontario in addition to Ford and their Michigan central team. So, it's an exciting group for us. It's something that's a little bit outside of our traditional outreach mechanisms to pull together such a wide group, so we're very excited. I think, you know, from somebody who reads the press release and says, Hey, what is the impact of this?” I think depending on your optimism level, which I think we're more on the optimistic side, there's a lot of short-term very positive impacts, and then there's some longer-term discussion that we're keeping a close full watch on too. But in that short term really, we're looking at what's the possibility of when there are just-in-time delivery sorts of needs, whether it's a short haul, you know, especially in the time that we're in now with COVID tests, COVID samples being transported between potentially medical facilities that are co-located and that need something a little bit more expedient in terms of transportation. There's kind of that unique short haul just-in-time delivery that has shown its real need and importance lately. Then that also translates into the UPS truck that comes down the street, or the Amazon truck that comes down the street, that has to visit each individual house pull down the driveway, back up, all of those things, wear and tear on local roads, potential safety, you know, concerns in a community. What if that truck pulled down your street and was able to deploy some, you know, potentially small, unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, that that deliver a couple of packages as it goes down the street versus, you know, the truck pulling down everybody's individual driveway. So, in the short term, that's kind of the exciting part for us. Then as we look, you know, longer into the future with the development of some new, advanced aircraft that, you know, are electric and potentially autonomous as the technology develops, there needs to be a look of what infrastructure needs to be in place to really support that technology. Right now, you know, the infrastructure exists to do those sort of short haul flights, but for something a little bit longer it isn't necessarily there yet. So, between the partners that we've got, a number of industry folks have approached us and said, Hey, how do you make that repeatable? How do we get into a corridor that's safe, efficient, repeatable and, you know, how do we access that?” Really, there hasn't been a good answer historically. So, that's part of what this analysis is going to do is here's the infrastructure the capital development that's needed in addition to looking at those sort of socio-economic impacts to make sure that there isn't any environmental concerns, sound concerns, any of those sorts of things to say we can put this technology in place, have repeatable, safe flights for any potential industry that wants to access it to move their goods safely, efficiently, and potentially transfer some of that freight load and passenger load eventually off of the highway system, or off the rail system, and really provide a benefit to everybody.

Cranson: So, you talk a little bit about that and, you know, what it means in terms of delivery and the Amazon van and the UPS truck. But in terms of everyday life, I guess, if you're sitting down for dinner this week with your family and, you know, Aunt Shirley says, “What the heck is an aerial mobility corridor?” How do you explain that?

Budds:  Yeah, I think the easiest way to think of it is really the sort of a “highway in the sky.” That term has been used to mean a lot of different things for different people, but for us it really is, you know, in the same way that you have a freeway, or a county road, that has, you know, traditional traffic signals and signage and things like that, this corridor really is setting the stage to put those similar sorts of traffic control, loosely called “command and control” on the drone side, to really enable those flights to occur essentially as a “highway in the sky,” to enable that safe operation.

Cranson: I like that. I like “highway in the sky.” Stick around. There's more to come right after this short message.

Male Narrator: Did you know Newton's first law of motion states that a body in motion will continue moving at the same speed and same direction? While the second law states that an object acted upon by the force will undergo—

Female Narrator: Wait! I thought this was a snowplow safety message.

Male Narrator: It is, which is why this is relevant.

Female Narrator: Don't you think that's complicating things just a bit?

Male Narrator: Not at all. A snowplow weighs 17 times more than your average car.

Female Narrator: Right, and snowplows tend to travel at slower than posted speeds.

Male Narrator: So, the third law states that action and reaction are equal and opposite.

Female Narrator: I think it's easier just to remind motorists to give plows the room they need to do their jobs, follow at a safe distance, and don't drive into snow clouds, things like that.

Male Narrator: Well, if you're going to make it that simple, why don't you just say don't crowd the plow?

Female Narrator: Great idea. Stay safe this winter. Don't crowd the plow.

Male Narrator: That's it?

Female Narrator: Yeah, that's it.

Cranson: So, this also ties into some other innovations we've done with the province of Ontario and the governments of the various entities there, including some cross-border demonstrations with automated vehicle technology. I know that's not your area of expertise, but it is somewhat related. How would you tie all this together?

Budds: That's a great question. It's a unique question posed to me as somebody who is definitely not on the highway side of things, but it's interesting. We just had a good discussion with the folks in MDOT's Metro Region today about some of the work they're doing in partnership, like you said, with Ontario of making sure that we truly are connected as we deploy some of these corridors because just in terms of the infrastructure deployment, there are some true economies of scale and shared resources that can be deployed with this. Just take, for example, the communication systems that will support both of these technologies. If we're putting in infrastructure to support autonomous vehicles on the ground and you adjust that infrastructure ever so slightly to include a skyward view of it, there's a lot of connection there that's interesting. And I think one of the things that we're looking at with the corridor here is in partnership with the MDOT Cavnue corridor that those, you know, geographic areas are where some of the most critical transportation nodes are both on the aviation side with some good, strong airport infrastructure that's there, but also on the highway side that's moving freight all over the place. So, that's a great question, and that's one of the things that we are really driving that this aerial corridor mirrors a lot of the ground-based work as well.

Cranson: As somebody who's been studying this since adolescence, I guess, give me your crystal ball view. I mean, where do you see all this going? Outside of some serious ethical and moral questions surrounding the use of drones and warfare, what do you see is the long-term policy considerations related to the use of drones, you know, for commercial use and other things?

Budds: Yeah, that's a question that I’ve had to adjust my own mindset over the past couple of years too. Where, you know, maybe five years ago, I think with the general public even, the mindset about drones was, you know, is that thing going to be in my backyard and annoying everyone? And I think there is still some of that public outreach and education that still needs to occur on that front as well. But ultimately, you know, it's funny you can go buy your Amazon package, and I can check the box of whether I want it to arrive between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. tomorrow if I pay two dollars, or do you want to wait a little bit longer? And I think that's kind of the interesting debate and maybe the crossroads that we're at now of is there a market niche for, you know, extreme expedient delivery? And I think there probably is. It's not just on consumer goods, but I think there really is, you know, on some of those emergency service type of things. Me, personally, I think you're going to see that sort of small UAS package delivery movement of just-in-time goods. I think you're going to see that probably within the next couple of years really take off. The crystal ball on the longer-term discussion of are we going to be in the Jetsons age of fully autonomous aircraft transiting a corridor, I think we're going to get there. I think it's going to take a little bit longer, but there are some industry moves occurring now that are sort of in between that concept of with an urban air mobility corridor in place, maybe there is a spot for a piloted aircraft that takes off in a completely nontraditional way, maybe vertically. But, you know, if you're going from, you know, say, Corktown, Detroit out to the airport that maybe there is an aircraft you can hop in a group of folks, take off vertically, head down sort of an I-94 corridor, avoid some of the traffic, and end up at the airport in a pretty expedient fashion. I think that maybe is on the horizon. It might take a little bit longer. Then, ultimately, I think we're going to really start to have a discussion about pilotless aircraft and what that looks like. So, baby steps, I think, but I think eventually we'll get there.

Cranson: Yeah, well, that'll be fascinating. I think that regulators have a lot to balance with privacy and security and safety when it comes to drones. But I think, you know, you're right. It's like everything else, and demand is going to necessitate it. We're going to get there. So, give me your prediction on this: are we one year, two years, ten years away from routinely seeing, you know, drones drop a package on our porches?

Budds: If you happen to be in the vicinity of one of these corridors, I think, you know, we're cautiously optimistic that this analysis is going to show that there's pretty good demand in some specific locations. So, I think if you're in one of those areas and there’s support to take the next steps to really deploy the infrastructure to enable it, honestly, I think the technology is there. It's sort of that command-and-control regulatory side that sort of may be lacking a little bit. That's where I think the partners here in Michigan and Ontario are looking to say, “Hey, how can we step up to the plate with the infrastructure to enable this to really allow it?” So, I think if we get strong results from the feasibility analysis and support to move forward, I think in that corridor area you're going to see it within the next couple of years, honestly. It'll take a little bit longer to deploy, you know, further out, of course, but I think we're pretty close.

Cranson: Well, that's really interesting. We're an impatient species. We fully expect that we should be able to hit that button on our Amazon order and something should be at the door by the time we get there, so that's cool to look forward to. Well, thanks, Bryan. This has been really interesting, and we'll have to talk more about it as the project progresses and revisit to see how things are going.

Budds: Sounds good. Agreed. Thanks for your help, Jeff.


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.