For innovators, a balancing act

Progress in matters of aerospace requires a sometimes uncomfortable dance between patience and impatience.

Too patient, and your innovations can’t get out the door in time to impact the market. Act precipitously, and you set yourself up for missteps such as production of faulty parts or, in the extreme case, an accident or other failure that sets your innovation back by years or worse.

Consider Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric car company. Tesla is rolling ahead well with production of its electric cars, despite much reported upheaval and tension between an impatient Musk and the production team. I have to wonder how sustainable quality production can be in that kind of environment, if indeed the reports are accurate.

Such an environment in the production of rockets or aircraft would be untenable, given that one can’t coast to the side of the road when things go wrong. Hopefully, the environment is more positive at Musk’s SpaceX company.

Looking to space exploration, development of the Mole, the bullet-ended titanium spear that’s about to plunge into Mars, could turn out to be a case of patience and impatience balancing out just right. As anxious as the developers must have been, they tested the device rigorously on the ground and worked for years to get it into space. Let me not jinx them though. No one has dug so deeply into Mars, so the outcome is far from certain.

Then there are the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out radios that airline companies and general aviation enthusiasts are installing on their aircraft to meet the FAA and European 2020 mandates.

Let’s suppose someone had sprung from a boardroom chair years ago and made the case that radars will always be needed as a backup to ADS-B, because of the network’s reliance on GPS for tracking aircraft. As our story shows, this need for a radar backup is now widely accepted, but I have to wonder if a patient debate at the outset would have gotten us to this point sooner.

No doubt there are security and resilience challenges, but ADS-B does seem like a wise path in the digital age. In any case, if GPS were taken out or jammed on a large scale by an adversary, air travel might be the least of our worries. Bank transactions, communications networks and power grids rely on the GPS constellation’s timing signals. You wouldn’t be able to buy an airline ticket anyway.

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About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

For innovators, a balancing act