The rising use of drones has not escaped the attention of former Alaska Air Group CEO and chairman William “Bill” Ayer.
Ayer, who worked at the airline for over 30 years and spent roughly a decade as its CEO until his retirement in 2013, has joined the board of a relatively new drone startup called AirMap. He was previously an advisor to AirMap, but the new board seat means he will be more involved with the startup as it tries to take off.
Drones represent “the next frontier” for the aviation industry, Ayer told Fortune, and he believes that emerging companies in the space can turn into big businesses—similar to how automobiles and airplanes led to new huge industries.
“The early companies have a real opportunity to set the standards and help develop the acceptance” of new technologies, Ayer said.
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AirMap built a mobile app that drone pilots can use to receive updates from airports and air traffic management teams about flight conditions “so they don’t get too close to an airplane” or don’t land in places they shouldn’t be, like “on the White House lawn,” said AirMap CEO Ben Marcus. It also sells its technology to airports so that they know when drones may be flying too close.
Drone navigation technology is a hot sector with startups like AirMap, ANRA Technologies, and Skyward all building their own variations. That’s one reason why NASA, various universities, drone startups like AirMap and Skyward, as well as big companies like Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN) are trying to build a national drone traffic management system. The drone traffic management system would essentially provide the infrastructure to allow drones to safely integrate into the commercial airspace alongside airplanes.
“There is an existing infrastructure and you got to figure out how you ought to relate to that and integrate,” Ayer said about new drone navigation systems one day working with existing air traffic control technology.
Regarding, the Federal Aviation Administration’s recently released commercial drone regulations that provide rules on how businesses can use drones Ayer said they represent a “big step forward” for the both the drone and aviation industry.
The rules, which open the door for any business to fly drones, will lead to more companies creating innovative drone technology and new use cases, some of which have yet to be considered, he said. “They listened a lot to the industry and they are providing a lot of flexibility here,” he said.
However, the drone rules must keep evolving because “the needs of tomorrow are different from the needs of today,” Ayer added.
As to whether today’s drone startups will become big publicly traded companies and whether big airliners may eventually get into the drone business themselves, Ayer said “the crystal ball isn’t clear—it never is.”
And although AirMap’s 26 employees are just a fraction of the roughly 13,000 people that Alaska Air Group (ALK) employed during Ayer’s tenure as CEO, there are some similarities. Every company, regardless of size, needs to be quick to react, because there’s always a competitor or a sudden change in the market that can hurt a business.
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“I always thought it was healthy to wake up with a good dose of paranoia every day,” said Ayer.
He felt that competitive pressure “continually” during his time at Alaska, and faced a number of challenges, including a rapidly changing airline industry. Every legacy airliner, except for Southwest Airlines (LUV) and Alaska, “went through at least one Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the time that I was CEO,” Ayer said.
A bad economy, fuel prices, and the 9/11 terrorist attack all seriously impacted the airline industry, he explained. Alaska Air survived without going bankrupt, but it “wasn’t perfect by any means” and there were some “tough decisions and layoffs.”
But companies learn from the bad times, and that knowledge of how to survive and grow is something Ayer can channel for his new role at AirMap. In April, the company landed a $15 million in investment from General Catalyst Partners, Social Capital, TenOneTen Ventures, Bullpen Capital, and the Pritzker Group.
“Fasten your seatbelt, because this is going to be an interesting ride,” Ayer said.