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The former chief of the U.K.’s air-traffic control is moving to a U.S. drone startup

AirMap’s technology is used in 80 percent of commercial and consumer drones worldwide.

A drone flies during practice day at the National Drone Racing Championships on Governors Island, Aug. 5, 2016. in New York City. More than 100 pilots competed for $50,000 in prize money.
Drew Angerer / Getty

In the United Kingdom, the national air-traffic control system is run by a company, NATS, in a public-private partnership with the Civil Aviation Authority, England’s version of the FAA.

And tomorrow, the former CEO of NATS, Richard Deakin, will announce that he’s moving to work for AirMap, a California-based drone-mapping startup.

AirMap tells air-traffic controllers and drone operators where low-altitude aircraft are flying so they can adhere to local regulations and report flight plans.

The technology could be crucial to making drones more commercially viable. Its platform allows drone operators to fly their aircraft outside of their line of sight by allowing them to avoid other drones and low-flying airplanes, as well as airports where drones are not allowed.

AirMap’s technology is used in about 80 percent of commercial and consumer drones worldwide today, including drones from DJI, Intel and others, as well as nearly every major airport in the U.S.

Deakin’s tenure with NATS ended in controversy. He resigned last year following a major failure at a national control center that kept flights across the U.K. grounded for hours. That calls into question his political capital, and whether he’ll be able to help AirMap influence the outcome of the U.K.’s forthcoming regulations around drones.

Prior to his new job at AirMap, Deakin was on the company’s advisory board, but his connections with British regulatory authorities didn’t steer AirMap into a collaborative role with the government agency in the same way that other members of the company’s personnel have advised the FAA.

One of AirMap’s founders, Greg McNeal, sat on the FAA’s drone registration advisory committee. And William Ayer, another member of AirMap’s advisory committee, was the most recent past chair on the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee.

The E.U. assembled a task force to assess drone-airplane collision risk earlier this summer, and the U.K. is working with Amazon’s drone-testing division to gather data to inform its forthcoming commercial drone rules.

In order to ensure that drones don’t crash into buildings, crash into other aircraft or violate laws, vehicles and operators need to exchange data and receive real-time information about where there’s an airport, a prison or a fire where drones are prohibited.

It’s a problem that regulators will need to solve before drone delivery becomes a reality.

Drone operators in the U.K. are only currently required to “keep away” from airports and congested areas, with no specific rules defining how much distance to maintain.

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