Fast Five: Wing's Alexandra Florin

Credit: Wing

Alexandra Florin joined Wing in 2020 as manager of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) developer’s aviation technical standards department. For almost a decade prior to joining the firm--owned by Alphabet, the holding company spun out of internet search giant Google--Florin worked for EASA, the European Union’s aviation regulator, that latter two years as its drones project manager. Her role at Wing marks a return to industry for Florin, who began her career with what is now called Safran, spending 10 years working on the TP400 engine program. 

After seeing the UAS industry from both the regulatory and the development sides, what do you think are the similarities, and the differences, in how each approaches the challenges?

I think both sides are extremely complementary. I think that EASA and the Commission have done tremendous work, particularly in recent years, especially on the UAS domain, to develop efficient rules that are performance-based, operation-centric, and future-proof. I’m not just saying this because I was part of the EASA team, but I still truly believe that what the regulators have done is really great. And why they have done this--because I think, as well, they’ve listened a lot to the industry. 

We have occasionally seen evidence of technology companies entering the UAS sector with the same “disruptor” mindset that characterizes internet innovation: to deploy first, then see if regulations exist to permit an activity. That can’t happen in a safety-critical environment like aviation. Has that ever been a tension you’ve observed? 

This is one of the biggest challenges we have. I’m an aeronautical engineer: I’ve been working on big, traditional aircraft with big, traditional companies for many years, and when I entered EASA I didn’t start working on drones. But at some point, I realized there was a revolution happening in aviation and I wanted to be a part of it. Of course, it’s disruptive, and of course, it’s difficult--and we have to work on successfully conducting the change. We need to educate, we need to explain, we need to get the two worlds understanding each other. But I think it’s worth it. And I think it’s going to happen. 
Electric light didn’t come from continuous improvement of candles. Successfully integrating operational drones in the sky will not come from continuous improvements in traditional manned aviation. There will be disruption, and it’s difficult--but I think we have everything available to conduct this change efficiently and successfully.

Is the growth we’re seeing in the E-VTOL/flying-taxi space taking attention away from developments in the commercial unmanned/small drone space? Or is it helping in progressing some of the same issues?

Flying taxis, small UAS--they’re different businesses and they have different challenges, different standardization needs. There’s no one solution fitting for all. But there’s one thing where we all agree we want the same, which is to safely integrate into the airspace. We will need U-Space, we will need UTM [unmanned traffic management] services. And at Wing, we believe those services can be shared by everyone--the small UAS, the flying taxis, manned aviation. The technology and the solutions are already available, and even if the business is different, even if the challenges are different, we are going to meet together in the sky and we are going to use the same services. 

What do you believe should come first: is it up to regulators to develop standards for industry to design to, or should it be for industry to design things that regulators then have to figure out how to regulate? 

I think the answer is in the middle. What happened in the past is the technology came first: new technologies were developed, then the industry was gathering in various bodies to standardize the approach. This way worked pretty well with many years, but with unmanned aircraft we’ve changed the paradigm. I think regulators are changing their way to approach things. They’re going for performance-based, risk-based and future-proof regulation. By doing so, they allow the industry in parallel to develop technical standards because the regulator is not being prescriptive in their regulation. 

Has the pandemic been a hinderance or a help to the development of services such as unmanned package delivery?

What we were super-happy with was to fill the gap between people and access they have to things they need every day. We think that drone delivery is a very sensible way to do that. So, obviously, 2020 and the pandemic have had an impact. What’s very interesting is to see that the momentum is continuing in 2021. Like in Australia, for instance, they have relaxed the pandemic restrictions, but still the use of the service is growing. I think what happened is, because of the pandemic, and because people had limited access to what they needed, it made them look at alternatives. They found out drone delivery is super-attractive, it’s safe, it’s contactless, and it’s cost-efficient, so they’ll keep doing that.

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.