In this brief interview, Ramón Roche from PX4 dives into the experiences of Brendan Schulman, a key figure in shaping U.S. drone policy. Schulman, currently serving as Vice President of Policy & Government Relations at Boston Dynamics, cut his teeth defending drone pilots against FAA regulations. He later joined DJI as Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs (and left DJI in September 2021).

During a time when regulators were grappling to comprehend the budding , Schulman actively steered global drone policy. Working alongside organizations worldwide, his mission was to educate policymakers, aiming for informed regulations on small unmanned aerial systems (small-UAS or drones).

However, Schulman doesn't shy away from acknowledging the shortcomings of this era. He openly discusses how geopolitics significantly shaped the drone industry's trajectory. Taking a closer look at the world of drone policy and its implications, Brendan Schulman's insights offer a first-hand account of an evolving industry navigating uncharted regulatory territory.

Brendan Schulman Interview

YouTube video

Transcript

Here's the transcript of the interview with Brendan Schulman:

Roche: Today, my guest is Brendan Schulman. You work at Boston Dynamics, you're the VP of Policy, and you've been working in the drone industry for a while. Before you moved into Boston Dynamics, you were practically a legend. I've asked around, everyone knows you. It's because you've done a lot of good, rewarding work for the drone industry in general. I want to touch on a lot of policy things today because I think it's really critical for moving the industry forward. But before we get into all of that, I want to talk about you. I want the audience to know you. What motivates you to do the things that you're doing right now? How did you actually get into drones? Because I couldn't find any info on that.

Schulman: Well, thanks for having me here. It's great to be on the podcast. The story of me and drones goes all the way back about 25 years when I started becoming a model aircraft enthusiast. I was really just someone who liked to build and fly model airplanes. Then, I had this opportunity as a lawyer in New York to take on some of the first cases involving the regulation of model airplanes, or what we now call drones, in the United States.

There were a couple of cases that came up, famously the Raphael Parker case involving an FAA penalty and then the Equusearch case. That involved the use of model airplanes for volunteer . This group in Texas was looking for missing kids. I thought, ‘Wow, that's an amazing application'. But the government was telling them they couldn't do it. It wasn't legal, it wasn't allowed.

So I took on these early advocacy cases. I went from being a model aircraft enthusiast to someone who was working on the legal issues surrounding the new commercial uses for the same kinds of technology.

Roche: Knowing that technology really helped put you in the . Then, in 2015, if I got my notes right, you got in touch with DJI, or did DJI get in touch with you? What happened there?

Schulman: They started a search for someone who could address some of the emerging concerns coming from the government. You might recall that was the year a DJI drone landed on the White House lawn.

Roche: A DJI Phantom, right?

Schulman: Yeah, it was a Phantom. That's right. And I think they, and probably the larger industry, realized at that point that the government was going to have questions and concerns. They needed someone who could address the law and policy that was coming up around the use of drones. But also someone who knew the technology and was passionate, genuinely interested in defending and promoting the industry.

Roche: So, would you say that the Phantom landing in the White House prompted DJI to ‘lawyer up'?”

Schulman: It was probably the single precipitating factor that caused them to realize they needed someone to do government policy, government relations work. That started the search for someone to take that position. To put you in context, back in 2015, DJI was still the largest, but there were other competing companies as well. There was a community and a big industry forming back then, so this was a big issue because there were a lot of manufacturers.

Roche: What was your personal goal behind taking that job?

Schulman: The personal goal was really to continue what I'd already started as a lawyer individually, which is to advocate for the technology, for the people who would come to use and benefit from it. I worked with many of those companies, so back then it was 3DR, Parrot, and GoPro either in the drone industry on the consumer side or getting into it in the case of GoPro. We worked great together, we started a trade association, we advocated for the interests of all users of the technology. Particularly those kinds of systems you could buy and use today, rather than the stuff that was off in the distant future in terms of drone delivery or these days, passenger drones. It was focused on innovation that was within reach. So back then, there were drones that you could buy at Best Buy.

Roche: That's right, and they were using them as tools, which is what caused this connection with regulation and the technology that we were using. So what type of policy did you help drive while you were at DJI?

Schulman: There were so many different things. When I started that job, we had 300 state bills per year that were mostly anti-drone, restricting or prohibiting drone use. So we got involved in defending against those and defeating those proposals across many states and implementing model drone policy that still exists in about 15 states, covering half the population. So if you look at state drone law, we were there. Federal legislation for the FAA was being done around that time, and there are provisions relating to micro drones that would allow them to be used more easily for commercial purposes.

In later years, Remote Identification (Remote ID) became a significant policy issue, as did flight over people. Of course, registration was probably the one thing that kicked it off. The first year I was at DJI, the registration task force was trying to advise the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on how to register drones, which drones would be registered, how much it would cost, and how to get it done.

Roche: So, when you mentioned advocating for good policy, who were you advocating to? The policymakers who were going to implement something that could have been a ban, a burden on operations, or a restriction?

Schulman: That was -related, but it was a global role. I obviously started off being based in the U.S. and was most familiar with American policy, but DJI, given how global it was, immediately took on a global role. I hired folks in Europe and Pacific, Australia, Japan, Korea. We were basically doing the same kinds of advocacy for reasonable policy worldwide, again with the interest being that if we can get the right policy in place, we can address the legitimate concerns people had about drones, including airspace safety, privacy, and security, while not impairing the value of the technology. That was really my personal mission, and because I was running that for DJI, it was also DJI's mission. We were going to advocate for anyone who wanted to use a drone because that would help our company, but it would also promote innovation in the industry.

Roche: So, you were pushing for better regulation for everyone. Why do you think there's a significant anti-DJI sentiment?

Schulman: I think it's just kind of popular to criticize and it's kind of a love-hate thing with the industry leader in any industry. Pick your favorite industry, it could be Apple, it could be Tesla. There's something about the market leader where people appreciate what they've done, and the technology that they've delivered at a reasonable price, which is why they're doing so well. But then there's also a sense that now I have no choice, or I'm tied to them, or you can't escape the impact and influence of a company that has that much of a market advantage. I think that just sort of builds on itself. It's a very natural thing. You see it in everything from the popular people in high school to sports teams that keep winning. How many people hate the Yankees, the Red Sox, or the Patriots? There's something about cheering for the underdog.

Roche: People didn't just have anti-DJI sentiment; you also caught a lot of that fire for them. As a spokesperson, you became a public target.

Schulman: Well, I had a very visible role. There were only a handful of us-based visible people for DJI at that time. It was Michael Perry, myself, Romeo Durscher, and a few others. Of course, I was dealing with government stakeholders, testifying in Congress, and doing things that were very visible. So, it was inevitable that some of those sentiments would be directed at me.

Roche: How do you deal with that personally?

Schulman: To me, it's just part of the job. If you're going to work at the cutting edge of a new industry that's scaring people – either because they think that airliners are going to crash, or that the Chinese are spying on the American government, or that their daughters are being spied upon in the backyard swimming pool – if you're working in that kind of industry that raises all these concerns, some legitimate, some not, and you're the visible face of the company that leads that industry, to me it was just, this is just the way it's going to be. You're going to get some of the heat. It's sort of inescapable.

Roche: You mentioned China, and I can't let that pass because there was a big cybersecurity issue. I don't know if it's misinformation or what, but everyone started reporting that the drones were leaking data and perhaps exposing more data than they should. They started getting banned from some levels of the government. You were still there, how did you deal with that? It must have been quite the experience to have to educate, and learn yourself about the actual technology to be able to explain it to others. What did you do?

Schulman: It's a challenge because drones are scary to begin with, and then the allegation is that they are stealing or sending data to overseas adversaries. You have to try to prove the negative, which actually isn't really possible. There are things that the company did that I think were helpful. There were different types of independent audits that really examined the security of the product. There was a collaboration with the Department of the Interior to create drone models, called Government Edition, that were totally offline and couldn't send data anywhere. This was demonstrably true from the testing that the U.S. government did. You can try to prove a negative, but you can't deal with the politics.

The politics are twofold: number one, it's a Chinese company, so we're just never going to it; number two, while you could update the software, all the past testing is no longer appropriate or relevant to the current software. That's true.

Number three, I think the honest issue wasn't about data going anywhere, but it was about dependence. The U.S. government, particularly the military, was uncomfortable with the notion of relying upon Chinese suppliers for small quadcopters. Interestingly, we now see in that these are quite effective in certain types of warfare scenarios, even though they're consumer or commercial products. That's an understandable concern and there's not really anything you can do about that, other than foster competitors that can actually deliver a product that competes with DJI. At least back then, this hasn't really been possible. So, you see the policy reaction to that is to try to attack, ban, and create a cloud of suspicion, not because I believed anything or ever saw a reason to think that data was going somewhere, but because they didn't like the idea that 80 percent of the market was DJI and the next five or ten percent was . Wow, ninety percent of the market is Chinese. That's a problem if we ever go to war with China, right? I think that was the real issue there, and it wasn't about .

Roche: It was more of a geopolitical situation. Would you say that the problems that you were facing back then in the drone industry were also similar to what any new emerging technology goes through every time, like say AI right now?

Schulman: Yes, there's definitely a fear cycle that's very intense right now on AI, in both image and text generating technologies.I thought we had gotten past that in the drone industry because we had this cycle of aviation safety fears and backyard privacy fears, and those, I think I and others in the industry did a lot to try to overcome. Unfortunately, as I was leaving DJI, creating a new type of fear in the industry, the fear of Chinese spying drones, is not good for anyone.

Now, the public and the government have a new reason to be scared of any kind of drone. If you're worried about data going to China, what is that data? Is it sensitive, private, or national security? If it is, we need to worry about all drones. Even if you eliminate the Chinese drone, the kid down the street can buy an American drone, fly it in that sensitive location, and send data anywhere, post it on YouTube or Instagram. So either you do or you don't have a security fear that arises from drones. If you do, now we have a whole problem for the industry. Perhaps you're seeing it at the show we're attending, where now we're setting up cybersecurity initiatives and new programs to address a new fear that the industry itself created and lobbied in order to compete with DJI. I think that's somewhat unfortunate.

Roche: As a software engineer talking about cybersecurity, geopolitical issues aside, I find it ridiculous that we're worrying about some of this stuff when we could be doing so much more to enhance what we already have and continue pushing technology forward. I want to thank you for pushing for all that work in drone policy, because you did help everyone. That's why I think you're a legend, and everyone in the comments will probably agree with me. So, let's move on to a good question here: what would you have done better if you could go back in time?

Schulman: It's such a difficult question. I think I would have started earlier with a grassroots movement. I would have pushed, because I value the community of people using the technology, those who've got the stories to tell. It's hard to engage them. On one hand, it's just a tool they're using to take a picture; on the other, those are the people who are most impacted by all these policies we've discussed, whether it's registration, remote ID, or the China policies that are now impeding agencies in Florida. It's the end users that really have those stories. So, I think, though it would have been challenging, I would have put more emphasis on developing grassroots advocates and the ‘grass tops,' as they're called, so that the industry had a collective voice. It wouldn't have just been DJI or a handful of trade associations advocating on behalf of the industry. Let's see the communities.


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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