“Every kid loves planes and rockets, right?’

Ernest Earon, 41, co-founder of and chief technology officer at PrecisionHawk

Growing up near Toronto, Ernest Earon was always taking things apart and putting them together again. Drawn to engineering, he became enthralled by the notion that if he couldn’t see light enter a black hole or watch stars form, intelligent machines could, a theme he explored in his University of Toronto doctoral thesis. In 2010, Earon co-founded PrecisionHawk of Raleigh, North Carolina, a firm notable for winning the first FAA approval (August 2016) to fly drones beyond an operator’s sight. Now, PrecisionHawk, CNN and BNSF Railway are testing commercial drone operations in rural areas for the FAA. PrecisionHawk sells the fixed-wing 15-meter-wingspan Lancaster 5 drone as well as quadcopters and six-rotor models for construction, farming, surveying and remote sensing.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

It was a combination of things. I have always been extremely curious, always taking things apart and putting them together again (though not nearly at the same success rate) even from a young age. I was very comfortable with math, science and physics and so I knew that engineering was a good option for me. I was touring university with some friends when I got introduced to aerospace and things just clicked from there. I mean, every kid loves planes and rockets, right? Between that and the fact there are so many ways that we are still learning in the aerospace field, it was a pretty good fit. I went to do a Ph.D. in planetary robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence at the University of Toronto. Then, I started moving into the terrestrial space. I’ve been trying to keep up with technology ever since. I managed research and development of networks of intelligent unmanned aircraft for Quanser Consulting. After that, I managed a project at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies that demonstrated the use of multiple unmanned robotic aircraft for agricultural applications. I founded PrecisionHawk in 2010.

Imagine the world in 2050. What do you think will be happening in aviation?

I think that while the basics of the [drone] technology will be similar to what we’ve come to expect now, their use and ubiquity will be world-changing. Drones and autonomous flying machines will be used everywhere from applications like bridge inspection and delivery that we are aware of now, through to applications that we haven’t even begun to contemplate yet. The technology will move people as well as goods around. With better and cheaper electronics, computers, batteries, materials and manufacturing, we’ll be seeing personal aircraft everywhere alongside flying delivery, repair, inspection, herding and monitoring drones. All of this will turn the airspace, and the regulatory environment around it, on its head. Conveniently, people are starting to think about that now. So while I think there will be huge changes and disruption for the better across multiple industries as well as aerospace, it will be as chaotic as it often is with these kinds of innovations.

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Aircraft Design
Ernest Earon of PrecisionHawk Credit: Courtesy photo

“Every kid loves planes and rockets, right?’