Including my tenure as Silicon Valley Chapter President (A Nostalgic Retrospective)
When I took over the Silicon Valley chapter, it was about 5 or 6 people sitting around voting on what type of pizza we wanted for the next meeting. The only perk on the deal was that we would meet at the flight ops building at NASA Ames. Bittersweet, as there were glossy photos of exotic aircraft plastered all over the walls from back in the day when NASA was on the cutting edge of aviation instead of the blunt edge of a paperwork and bureaucratic nightmare. One week they are telling me I could hangar my plane there and the next I’m told, “Hit the bricks, Muldoon.” I’m going to leave that one right there because the NASA story, the nodes, the paperwork, and how to go from beguiled to getting yourself on the interplanetary Poo List is worthy of a separate retelling.
As you unpack this story, rest assured it’s not all sour grapes because the chapter presidency plan was not my idea. However, most of the grousing about the association’s ineffectual leadership and demeanour was met with old timers telling me that change comes from within. I learned something: that adage only works if the person or entity wants to recognize that there is a problem. If you’re the one making your own chuck wagon gravy, a six-figure salary, bonuses, junkets, and not having to produce anything tangible, it might be a little harder to recognize the issues.
Some folks thought it was time to break with the status quo and shake things up. It wasn’t all altruism either as these same folks had products they wanted to sell and no legal market to sell them in. Some reckoned the idea of making the Egan guy a chapter president could be just enough to rattle the cage door open a crack. I guess the word was out that I am a sucker for a lost cause, so I took up the challenge since we had an industry to build and we all knew it wasn’t going to do it on its own. My agenda was simple: small business, jobs, and STE(A)M, and included anyone who was interested in a future with commercial UAS and the converging applications of Land, Air, Sea and Space.
Readers should be aware that this wasn’t my picnic with the World’s largest Unmanned Systems Advocacy group, as I was invited to be on the Airspace Advocacy Committee in 2009. They ghosted me in 2011 right around the time I started making a fuss about no commercial representation on the newly formed FAA UAS ARC. Conventional efforts were all focused on the big iron—now the little plastic. But I think the pendulum might be on its way back.
At this time I had also given Executive leadership several solid ideas on how to boost the industry’s commercial image, membership numbers, and how to start building a grassroots advocacy political machine that we would need in the future. I didn’t think we would get away from state laws scot-free, and we would need local folks to help work the Federal legislative branch.
The idea of bringing on university engineering departments, starting with the big engineering schools and working our way down, was a great way to recruit a passionate membership. I had envisioned a special department rate, as you would be recruiting future high-earning members as well as building the academic political base. Professor Bagofdonuts would be able to write to his/her local congressperson on behalf of the students and the future tax base they could/would produce. The home office had fear-and-loathing loss-of-control issues with this idea. I also suggested that they hire an LA PR firm to work the image, emulating something more relatable to the public. The mainstream can comprehend the Florida Orange Juice grower’s message over the less agreeable Predator or Reaper rifling the Taliban. #pickleswitch
All of it met with “the association doesn’t have the resources” and a resolute “absolutely no discounted membership!” Moreover, that went for people who bought booths at the yearly trade show too. I had suggested that they should throw in a free year of membership with the packages. These ideas would have helped to boost the membership numbers to my goal of 10K in time to nail the H.R. 658 shut. AMA was working on mandating up a million plus members crafting up the sec 336 stuff, but that is a different article.
On a side note, they did hire the all-American Kyle Snyder kid as the short-lived educational outreach person. As the story goes, someone at the head office made an off-the-cuff comment that (paraphrasing), “One day I could see Kyle running this association,” and it was full-on Mean Girls in the office until he was gone. #leadership
At the time, I had no idea “the association doesn’t have the money” was a de facto mantra. I should have known something was wrong because the AUVSI didn’t pay their sUAS ARC representative, and that was a full-time bureaucratic fustercluck with our future riding on it.
(Mantra definition: The word mantra can be broken down into two parts: “man,” which means mind, and “tra,” which means transport or vehicle. I think it might be time to revisit the Chopra Center to get the chakras realigned and the oil changed.)
Back to the story –
We started attending the tradeshows in and around the Valley and folks would say, “AUVSI, must be new because I never heard of you.” Imagine what it was like answering that with, “We represent the worlds largest advocacy group for unmanned systems, and it has been in existence for 40 years.” Shoulder shrugging and raised eyebrows were the norm even after shelling out the money to have a table and listing in the program.
Undaunted and unsupported (financial or otherwise), I built up the meetings to an affair with tons of people in attendance and streamed it all live on the Google Hangout for FREE. Non-members were also invited to a preview or try before they bought meetings to see what this dynamic and disruptive 40-year-old startup was all about. The spectacle was open to association members interested in commercial applications regardless of their specific affiliations or impediments to attending imposed by geographical locations. Our Internet connection reached well beyond VLOS and was viable and availed the chapter to likeminded folks from around the Globe. We did this because some people did not have a local chapter and also because some of the chapters have a focus that does not appeal to the entire body of members, i.e., the Sea Farer or Pathfinder Chapters.
The home office started to tighten the screws by imposing limitations on what was permissible, including letting members join the chapter from beyond my geographical region. How it worked was that chapters got $10 for every new member who joined. After that initial infusion was cut off, there was still nothing made available for business development or brand awareness in the Valley. Hard to run with the Silicon Valley VC big dogs on a budget of a couple of hundred bucks because Patagonia vests and New Balance sneakers don’t grow on trees.
Even worse is the credibility ding when you have to blow your horn about a multi-billion-dollar high tech industry sector and sponge for handouts. (With three hundred bucks I don’t think we could have hired DJ-Hi-Tek and that dude lives with his Granny.) Leadership’s “no money” mantra wasn’t just for the chapters, but just about anything else you could think of to move the ball forward, as they often asserted, the association was just dead broke. Later I found out they had almost 4 million USD in reserves for a rainy day. Meanwhile, many of the members were suffering the rainy day of no access to a legal income stream.
After much public grousing, there was talk of cutting loose with $1000 in grants/loans for the chapters, and I mistakenly took this as the first step in a new direction. One revenue-generating idea shared with me from leadership was trading advertising space on the chapter website with +/- 20 visits a month. HQ has taken over the control of the sites since my tenure as chapter president. Last I heard there was a bit of a dust-up as the mantra was chanted when it came to the updating the websites discussion at the Xponential this year. It looks like every last dollar is going into the Trusted Operator Program (TOP) program. (Where’s the beef!) After watching the webinar video I’m thinking someone should preemptively call the NTSB and make an appointment for the impending rollout smouldering crater. I imagine the chapter image thing is still a low priority, as fear of independent thought runs deep at the home office.
While on that subject of independence, we should touch on what happened to the “international” chapters of Canada and Australia. While there were no resources for domestic chapters, the AUVSI lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars on building the Australian Chapter with strings. No such thing as a free spaghetti lunch! There were stipulations in the agreement that included having to clear material and ideas that members would talk to their own government about (WTF). There are more details and some shenanigans imported from the Canadian Chapter fall out, but the Australians told HQ to get stuffed, as the story goes.
I guess all of the ideas shared with leadership on how to build the membership, start a grassroots advocacy campaign, and the other suggestions to boost the industry and association’s image could not be heard over the din of “Hey, Hey, ho, ho, killer drones have got to go!” at Code Pink hosting Die-ins at the annual tradeshow. Boy howdy, those were the days with all of the pageantry and drama a bunch of half-crazed loonies from Berkeley could muster. Come to think about it, I think it was all on the natch since recreational weed wasn’t legal.
Putting points on the board –
Nothing like a good old-fashioned, blood-spattered die-in or a prominent Fire Toscano sign behind you when testifying to Congress to assuage your public image problem.
AUVSI couldn’t even muster up the leadership to blunt this issue. I went outside into the belly of the beast and spoke to protestors in DC, NYC, and Berkeley to explain to them just how the administrative kill chain concept worked. Most were under the misconception that these extrajudicial killing machines flew around and robotically set upon folks willy-nilly, indiscriminately whacking people heading to weddings and other non-nefarious family outings like birthday parties and Skeeball tourneys at Chuck E. Cheeses. No one knew you had an HE “Hut Buster” Hellfire missile at one end of the targeted killing kill chain and Barrack Hussein Obama on the other. Incidentally, Berkeley is where I got my @thedronedealer twitter handle. The Berkeley Drone Town Hall meeting was a scene straight out of a movie, pot smoke wafting in the window and all. A guy comes in and says, “There he is man, there’s the drone dealer!” I was like, “The drone dealer is here, where?” He meant me of course.
Executive leadership didn’t/wouldn’t counter and instead stood by General Atomics and buried their heads in the sand for a paltry $11K a year. I led an effort to disassociate or at least vote on disassociation with GA. I figured we could have an open dialogue and preemptively blunt public mistrust of drones, but the executive leadership and the board said no to a vote. The best compromise they could come up with was a General Atomics’ sponsored scholarship, but I said it would be a hard sell to the peaceniks to say you are going to educate kids with the money you made killing other people’s kids.
The chapter presidents used to get in on the yearly board meeting to air and discuss concerns gleaned from the front lines. Solutions weren’t a big agenda priority as they were usually met with the old “we have no money” saw. I didn’t know it at the time, but what they meant was “no money” for anything else besides cocktail parties, salaries, bonuses, junkets, consulting contracts for board members and spouses of executive leadership, etc. We don’t know who or how deep anyone got to dip their snout in the trough, as it is still “not happening” for the membership. Part of the newly instituted inclusivity program is that one chapter president is appointed to speak for all of the chapter presidents and their members. They have some Platinum Member company yes-man screen the unwashed masses for them at HQ.
I blew a fuse on issues like hiring outside consultants to research commercial uses for drones and whether the association should change its name. The name change thing was an absolute fail, with a low number of folks being polled at the show. The board and executive leadership purportedly spent $300K on those subjects while I reminded them who they were and that we had the best and brightest in the unmanned industry as members. Why would we go outside to folks who know nothing about the technology? Lord only knows if there was a kickback in it or some nepotism, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Before you trot out the old they tried an email survey, it was tedious and took an hour and a half to fill out. What a disaster!
I said if we don’t have money for advocacy and membership building and the other efforts to further the industry, I would like to see the books. Everyone got saucer eyes and insinuated that I was suggesting some impropriety. I said that as a businessperson the first thing you do is look at the books to make sure we are spending resources as efficiently as possible. The $300K spent on the consultants was an excellent example of poor business choices in my estimation.
Outgoing chairman sternly said, “not happening!” Also, I got calls from my official AUVSI handler (poor bastard) telling me I was asking dangerous questions and that I was making it personal by calling executive “leadership” (or lack thereof) into question. I said it wasn’t personal and I don’t care who is getting paid what, including bonuses and consulting contracts, if you are putting points on the board. As far as I was concerned, there was a big fat goose egg (not the golden variety) on the board, and I asked Mike Toscano to enlighten me. The only thing he could point to was the 82 billion dollar AUVSI Industry Forecast. Another 50 Amp fuse started smoking; I wouldn’t even consider that forecast suitable birdcage liner, as I wouldn’t want the bird to fall victim to any erroneous notions. I warned Mike then that the forecast would eventually become an albatross that hung around AUVSI’s neck. Political numbers are one thing, synthetic BS another.
I then spoke with John Lademan, the new Chairman of the board, trying to get some action. As far as he was concerned, he had no idea why anyone would have anything negative to say about AUVSI; I asked, “How much time do you have?” The shenanigans went on as the AUVSI bootlicking campaign finally went full-blown FAA lapdog. It reached this crescendo as the executive leadership was trying to get the FAA and other industry folks to marginalize me for speaking out against the internal dysfunction. Oh, was I throwing away an opportunity. For what? To be part of the problem? Readers that have followed me know I don’t knuckle under for threats or false promises of personal gain. Such notions are usually met with me doubling or tripling down on my efforts.
After Gretchen West got fired, I decided to help out by tossing my hat into the ring for the newly vacated Executive Vice President position. The termination must have come right out of the blue after they gave her husband a consulting contract at the same time as they decided to move to California. Boy howdy, that must have been awkward.
My bid for Executive Vice President represented the last straw, as a certain CEO was purportedly chewing the carpet he was so mad. Here I thought I was just trying to help the membership (20% discount on the salary even), get a jump on regime change. There were only a few people that would be able to take over and make a seamless change, and we had a lot riding on this.
Regime change did come, but it came to the Silicon Valley Chapter. The home office was looking for a company with traits like those at Airware: naïve, malleable, yet financially able to bankroll productions like the NASA UTM symposium. Not that they had to shoulder the whole thing; NASA also invested in it sending out promotional emails and materials from .gov. Sure, that raised an eyebrow or two with Federal employees about ethics and promoting commercial ventures for outside entities, but NASA Ames got a boatload of positive publicity, and the SV Chapter cleared about $85,000 on the deal. To AUVSI’s credit, they do seem to be adept at getting the Feds to push out some taxpayer-funded marketing.
The FAA AUVSI UAS symposium-
AUVSI had total control over what press outlets got press passes and what outlets could report on the FAA’s progress and/or effort to help educate the public. Even the FAA AUS -010 management didn’t have the juice to get the AUVSI show promoter to reverse the decision on denying sUAS News a press pass. By the way, the sUAS News stories go out to more folks via email than the 7,500 members AUVSI used to have.
Fast forward to today, Brian Wynne is still reading off of the old Mike Toscano script, the industry forecast is widely recognized as bupkis, and the membership numbers are down by 20%. Will the TOP Pilot Program be enough to put a lustre back on the apple? Many find it doubtful; the sizzle webinar looks like middle school cafeteria staff helped put it together.
I want to thank everyone who has reached out to support my effort for the presidential election. However, that is not how the leadership thing works at AUVSI. It is more of a star-chamber thing where “elected” board members get consulting contracts, and the executive leadership gets bonuses.
As far as the “elected” board positions go, they usually consisted of tickets with some folks working for diamond and platinum companies running uncontested, and others that were a dogfight bin full of qualified people not working for diamond or platinum membership companies. From what I have heard the process is now more “by appointment” and a dismissal of those that oppose the executive “leadership” affair.
If this trend keeps up, the association might well find itself unmanned too, regardless of accounting methods used.