Forget about driverless cars. There are experts currently working on the technology, regulatory changes, and policy recommendations needed to make “flying cars” a reality. The flying cars of the future are shaping up to have a variety of configurations and capabilities, from an airplane that lets you fold the wings and drive on the road to automated vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that will pick you up and fly you to the other side of town. Imagine flying to work, while your co-workers spend an average of 42 hours per year stuck in traffic. Sounds too good to be true, right?
For some experts, like Catalant’s Anna Mracek Dietrich, though, personal on demand aviation is not just the stuff of science fiction films. Along with other award-winning MIT grads, Dietrich co-founded Terrafugia in 2006. Today, Terrafugia’s team of engineers, designers, certification experts, and business professionals are intent on combining aviation and automotive expertise to bring a variety of flying cars to market.
Since stepping back from her founding COO role to focus on certification and regulatory consulting in 2014, Dietrich has found no shortage of applications for what she has learned. Her aviation and aerospace expertise combined with her involvement with all business facets of the start-up makes her one of the most unique freelance consultants companies could encounter. Read the following interview to hear Dietrich explain in her own words all that she brings to the table.
Q | Tell us about your experience supporting the aviation and aerospace industries.
A | I have been in the aviation/aerospace industry since before my undergraduate days at MIT. I had some “big aerospace” experience early in my career (e.g., working with GE Aviation and Boeing Phantom Works), but the most exciting involvement for me began with the co-founding of Terrafugia in 2006. I participated in everything from operations to marketing and sales, to certification and regulatory work, to finance and corporate governance, to human resources, to design reviews and oversight of the testing program. In 2014, I stepped back from being founding COO and have been doing consulting, mainly in the regulatory space, for innovative aviation projects and international speaking engagements ever since.
Q | Where do you see key opportunities for the manned aviation industry?
A | Manned aviation is evolving rapidly. The traditional paradigms of general aviation (GA), where you spend dozens of hours to learn how to fly a small plane yourself, and of transport aviation, where you are herded onto a large commercial jet, are both going to be impacted by new technology. Consider all the machine learning algorithms, sensors, and safety systems needed to make autonomous cars a reality. This technology can be leveraged to serve the on demand aviation effort equally well.
My focus is in GA where we are already seeing new technologies and new vehicle architectures emerging to make it much easier—and much safer—for people to use aviation for personal transportation. Compared to cars, aircraft face fewer unpredictable obstacles in the sky and have more options for avoiding accidents too.
Q | Are there specific examples of innovation in aviation that you can speak to?
A | Terrafugia is in many ways the founder of the modern flying car industry. Our efforts have gone a long way towards revolutionizing both the GA regulatory landscape and the public perception of the “flying car.” The Transition—Terrafugia’s first and imminent product—is a big leap forward in the convenience, safety, and fun of personal flying. I even had the opportunity to fly one of the prototypes! But the real revolution is coming with the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles that are under development at Terrafugia and elsewhere. Automation and electric propulsion are two fundamental pieces of enabling tech that are starting to come into their own in GA as we speak.
Q | What does the future look like for manned aerospace?
A | I think there’s a great parallel between the early days of the automotive industry and where we are today with personal manned aviation: there is an explosion of new technology that no one fully knows what to do with, but that is going to fundamentally change how we get from place to place. What the future looks like is very much up to us, both from a technology and from a regulatory and policy perspective, but I have confidence that it will evolve to eventually become as natural a part of our lives as cars are today.
Q | Tell us about your background. What makes you an expert in aerospace?
A | Besides being COO and acting CFO from the incorporation of Terrafugia in 2006 until 2014, I have also been involved at both the federal and state levels drafting technical standards and regulatory language, compiling relevant research to support policy recommendations, and navigating the political process through meetings, letters of support, and public engagement. My communication skills and attention to detail make me particularly effective at working within an existing structure to achieve unanticipated results.
Q | What attributes of aviation and aerospace are typically addressed by consultants/experts like yourself?
A | I have done data-driven performance evaluations of existing aviation products (e.g., for GE), market forecasting, and technical feasibility studies for new products, as well as regulatory assessments for aircraft and component manufacturers. A lot of the details are confidential, but work products range from a few pages of a memo, to presentation decks, to 90-page comprehensive reports.
Q | As a consultant, what do clients typically ask you to solve? What are the deliverables and the timeframe?
A | This varies considerably. Usually I’m helping with something that is outside the realm of what is currently well understood. My ability to find creative solutions and simplify complexity is key. While I can add value in many different areas of the aviation and aerospace industries, my focus is GA regulatory affairs and policy for innovative aircraft, like vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles. A lot of what I have done has involved petitioning federal agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for exemptions to regulations to allow testing of innovative aviation vehicles and working with international standards bodies. It’s all about knowing how the system works and creating the connections needed to get the job done.
Q | Tell us about a specific project that you’ve worked on that illustrates your expertise.
A | I specialize in figuring out regulatory and certification pathways for innovative general aviation products and helping the FAA future-proof the applicable regulatory framework. For one on-going project, I served on the FAA Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) as an industry participant, presenter, and regulatory text author. The goal of this committee was to create a certification environment which will result in airplanes operating twice as safely as the existing fleet and being certified at half the expense of those being certified today. The results of this work will shape the future of the aviation industry for years to come; our recommendations became law in August 2017. I continue to be part of the international standards body that is supporting the implementation of that Rule and am proud to be involved with such a fundamentally enabling package of work. It’s much more about on-going involvement and relationship building and management than a clear cut SOW.
Q | What metrics are usually used to measure success in the types of projects that you work on? What has been the impact/ROI of your work?
A | The bottom line is whether the client is satisfied. Since I’m working at the cutting edge of the industry, ROI usually doesn’t make sense as a metric—we’re investing in creating the future, not optimizing the present. At the risk of sounding overly full of myself, I think the ultimate impact of my work in this space is going to be getting all of us safely and comfortably off the ground on a regular basis. I’m fortunate to work with clients who see the value in my line of consulting.
Q | How do you approach business needs as an independent consultant differently than say, a big consulting firm would (Bain, BCG, McKinsey)?
A | My personal relationships with the regulators and hands-on experience with all aspects of starting and growing an innovative company in the aviation industry give me a unique and particularly valuable perspective. I can tailor my work product to the client’s needs and adapt as unknown unknowns arise being an active participant in the problem solving—and perhaps more importantly—the problem definition process. I also don’t just want to bill hours, I want to do mutually interesting and valuable work, so I try to be as efficient as possible and prefer to work on a project basis.
Aviation and Innovation
When it comes to innovation, many industries pale in comparison to the aviation and aerospace industries. Still, both public perception and federal agencies being slow to update existing regulations have held back innovation. And business leaders tell similar stories across nearly all emerging industries.
What can be done to remove these roadblocks and keep ground-breaking products moving to market? Well, for starters, we can all take a page from Dietrich’s playbook. Engaging a consultant with high-level expertise in your industry and who knows her way around the regulatory and policy arena can ensure that your idea doesn’t get buried in red tape.
Find out what a certification and regulatory consultant could offer your organization. Create an account at Catalant. Then complete our easy form to describe your project or browse our expert profiles. Our algorithm identifies the best talent for you and delivers a list of candidates so you can check qualifications, review proposals, and schedule interviews. See how it works here. It’s easy!