Once-skeptical executive now fervent drone advocate

It didn’t take long for James “Heidi” Fleitz to come around on unmanned aerial vehicles.

And now, as a key player involved in commercializing the use of drones in Nevada, he’s glad he did.

Fleitz viewed UAVs with skepticism, probably a natural reaction from someone who once flew the Air Force’s gigantic C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft.

But after he became a drone pilot and saved the lives of some troops pinned down by enemy fire, he became a believer.

Now vice president of ArrowData, a Nevada company working to apply drone technology to business, Fleitz reflected on his journey to flying unmanned aircraft, the opportunities that await ArrowData and the future of the industry.

Question: How did you get into the UAV business?

Answer: I was getting out of the Air Force. I already had all my applications out and had some job offers when Sept. 11 happened. All the airlines went down the tubes so one of my options was to fly Predators.

When I was in Squadron Officer School, I wrote a paper that said UAVs are a poor platform for shooting missiles, Hellfires and dropping bombs.

Question: What was your reaction when you saw your first unmanned aircraft flying?

Answer: When I got my assignment here in March of 2003, I did a walk-around of the aircraft and I said, “Man, this thing is a Go-Kart.” So I wasn’t a real advocate. But one day, I was flying a mission when a TIC happened. That’s “troops in combat,” and whenever that happens, it’s kind of a game-changer. It doesn’t matter what your mission is, when troops come into contact, if you’re airborne, you get eyes on it and support the effort. So I supported it. I saw Americans getting shot, I watched them get shelled. So we shot a couple of Hellfires, saved the day for certain and followed the bad guys through the mountains and into a cave. A couple hundred guys came out and we dropped a bunch of bombs on them. I got out of my seat, my shift was over and about 15 minutes later, I got a call from a guy saying, “You saved our lives tonight, what’s your name, where do you live, how can I send you something? They had us pinned down and in a crossfire. If you hadn’t have shot those Hellfires, I’d be dead right now.” At that point, I became a total advocate and my whole mentality changed about the technology.

Question: How do you assess the state’s progress in conducting its mission?

Answer: The state has hit it out of the park. The leadership that has been shown by GOED (the Governor’s Office of Economic Development), the governor and Bowhead and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems board of directors — the whole team — has been outstanding. The toughest piece of this is that government doesn’t happen overnight. We all fell into that trap that we had been awarded the test site and expecting everything to just flow. I don’t want to say the FAA hasn’t been outstanding. It has been. But we’re all impatient, we’re all Type-A personalities.

Question: What are your thoughts on the rules the FAA issued in February about small drone flying?

Answer: Everybody has been clamoring to speed up so this is a definite effort to do just that. Now we have the public comment period to go through and the devil is in the details. There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction because now we know what questions to ask.

Question: Do you think the line-of-sight rule requiring pilots to see their craft at all times is too restrictive?

Answer: Yes. What I suspect is that at some point of time there will be an additional body of rules, maybe by class. Remember, this is for Class 1 and 2, for aircraft that are 55 pounds or less. I think the key is going to be in the redundancy of the operating systems. You can’t fly safely through the national airspace without redundancy of systems. I think that’s why they want to keep them to line of sight.

Question: Do you think we’ll ever see package delivery with drones? How about pizza or drink delivery in restaurants?

Answer: I get that question a lot. I used to have an article on my wall about when Henry Ford debuted the Model T at the Chicago Fair, and the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Henry Ford’s Model T is a neat invention, but it’ll never replace the horse.” Now I don’t know what horse you rode in on here today, but I drove a vehicle. So when will we get that? I don’t know. But will we? Yes. Will we ever fly on a passenger airliner that doesn’t have a pilot onboard? Lots of people say, “No way,” but what about the next generation?

Question: You now have new responsibilities in your position with ArrowData. What does the company do and what is your role?

Answer: ArrowData is a commercial operation under Bowhead Systems and it has a division called FrontRowCam. ArrowData is a company where we took a look at the requirements that business has and what’s legal. There are sensors out there that produce what’s commonly referred to as big data. We felt we had analytic capabilities to turn big data into actionable information so our clients can make decisions. It has six primary business lines and within those business lines we have many clients we can serve.

Electronic news gathering is one of our business lines. If a TV station is going to have its own helicopter, they have to buy the helicopter, they have to buy the sensors, they’ve got to pay for a whole personnel team, they’ve got to do all the maintenance on that helicopter and it’s a huge expense for them. Compare that to us: We buy the aircraft, we handle the insurance, we maintain it, we have the pilots and we have the analysts. They just have to tell us where they want us to be and pay for that asset when it’s doing the job for them, so it’s much more affordable.

Question: Are there any downsides to the technology?

Answer: When you talk about the technology, we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t talk about the privacy issue. There’s always a downside. People will look at this and say it’s an invasion of privacy. But for the folks that do this the right way, it isn’t. I’m a privacy advocate myself. My backyard is my sanctuary. … The people that understand this business and know how we’re going to make this successful know that you can’t infringe on people’s privacy. In fact, you’ve got to be the critical protectors of this privacy.

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