Another Game Changer making strides within the sector is Michel Lalumiere, GA-ASI’s International Strategic Development Director for Canada. In this Q&A session, he describes his experience in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the values he has brought with him into his current position at GA-ASI. His knowledge of core organizational functions, leadership skills, and his focus on cultural innovation have helped make the company a global leader in aerospace technology.
How did you start out in this industry and how has it brought you to where you are today?
My relationship with the industry began decades ago, which is the case for many military professionals in Canada. The Canadian Armed Forces relies on industry-produced equipment to protect and defend this great Nation, and it’s developed by dedicated professionals from a wide range of industries. The industry knows that we need to protect our military professionals, who often put their very lives on the line. This alignment of respect, resolve and professional ethos has been the foundation of this relationship to this day, in or out of uniform.
What is your role at your organization today?
Aerospace is deeply woven into the fabric of Canada, thanks to a century of extraordinary vision and leadership of so many Canadians before us. The vastness of Canada requires the incredible power of science and technology to connect us. It also requires technology to cover the demanding environmental conditions unique to our territories – from Ocean to Ocean to Ocean, sea level up to the top of our Rocky Mountains, to the north Pole and globally. The next notable milestone is the full integration of high-endurance, long-range Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) has been the world leader in RPAS for 30 years in developing, implementing, and fielding this new aerospace sector in numerous regions around the globe. My role with GA-ASI is to set this strategic development course in Canada from an industry, key enabler and key stakeholders’ perspective.
What was your most challenging moment?
Like any sizeable scientific or technological breakthrough, past or present, leading the advancement of an entire field of capabilities comes with proportionate responsibilities, as facing these unique challenges will test the resolve of your organization. The advent of RPAS will succeed through the combined strength of innovating nations, their industrial leadership, regulators, policy makers, and the wide range of operators.
What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?
Early in my more than 35-year career, I was taught that people ARE the organization. I understood that scale had no bearing. It could be a small organization or a 100,000-person organization. Regardless, it is people that determine the organization’s success or failure. The epiphany for me came when seeking: where from an organizational structure perspective, should leadership reside? Of course, the answer is that leadership resides at every level, from individuals who are directly tied to an organization’s success.
What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?
I’m learning every single day. It is humbling, on one hand, and sobering on the other to think that time is against me. But more importantly, it is so inspiring because everything I learn, I learn from others.
What is the best advice you received?
I was truly fortunate on one fateful day to meet a fantastic professional who gave me the best advice. When facing a complex problem in an organization, you will work to the solution with established or new colleagues with an astonishing wide range of skills, talent, trades and experience levels, all working against the clock. So, the advice I received is that the hardest thing we will ever have to do as leaders, by far, is to communicate effectively.
What is a habit that contributes to your success?
In a leadership or an authority relationship, the importance of communication gets amplified, therefore more efforts and time will be required. Make no mistake: often this could mean a lot of listening. I seek this performance from all leaders I work with – up, down, horizontal – regardless of the structural hierarchy.
What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset? (Does not have to relate to the defence & security industry, can be related to your everyday life)
I would argue you need equal doses of critical thinking habits, institutional empowerment, emotional commitment. Questioning the status quo is the premise of Innovation. General Atomics Aeronautical has been pushing and continues to challenge the limits of innovation; thinking and accepting that the most promising path to solutions might come from another field or sector.
How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?
General Atomics Aeronautical has been the leader in unmanned aircraft for 30 years. GA-ASI has produced more than 1,000 aircraft, and those aircraft have flown in excess of 7 million hours. We pioneered the design and development of large UAS, and we’ve changed it many times over. Probably the most significant item at this moment is the fielding of our latest RPAS, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian. The first customer variant of the MQ-9B is called the Protector and is specially configured to meet the needs of the UK’s Royal Air Force. The first Protector will complete its acceptance test procedure later this year, which is the last milestone before the air vehicle is officially handed over to the RAF.
One way in which we’re changing the game with the MQ-9B SkyGuardian is its airworthiness certification, which will enable this UAS to fly in unsegregated airspace like any other aircraft. With other UAS, air traffic authorities need to set aside a special corridor, keep other aircraft away, and so on. Not with us. MQ-9B joins that flow of traffic like other aircraft. This will significantly increase the efficiency and agility of SkyGuardian when executing true multi-mission operations, such as those broader missions of support to border security, environmental support – like fire detection, firefighting support or flood response — maritime patrol, and national resource monitoring missions, or search and rescue, and globally to include the Arctic regions.
Certification requires the MQ-9B to meet all-weather performance requirements, such as lightning protection, a damage-tolerant airframe, and a de-icing system. The MQ-9B carries a detect and avoid system that we invented that enhances safety of operations in civil and military airspace. It lets the aircraft see what’s around it just like a conventional aircraft and keeps its pilot in touch with air traffic controllers just like a conventional aircraft. All these advances come while remaining highly interoperable between key allies.
Of course, the MQ-9B grew out of the wildly successful MQ-9A, which is in broad use by the U.S. and eight other NATO and close allied forces. The MQ-9A built its legacy as a multi-mission UAS with an integrated sensor package that delivers very long persistent flight and very long-range surveillance capability. MQ-9B builds on the core capabilities of MQ-9A but delivers even greater range and endurance, automatic takeoff and landing, and other never-before-seen capabilities.
In addition to the RAF, we are busy fulfilling orders from the Belgian Defence Department, and the Japan Coast Guard. The MQ-9B is already in operation supporting the Indian Navy.
MQ-9B SkyGuardian is the aircraft that GA-ASI
looks forward to is proposing for Canada’s RPAS Project. We can’t wait to have these important capabilities in the hands of the Canadian Armed Forces. Canada is a big, globally engaged country and we know the Canadian Forces can fully exploit the range, endurance and multi-mission capabilities of this aircraft. Canada will join an esteemed coalition of international operators including the U.S., UK, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and India – with Japan, Belgium, and others soon to follow.
What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?
You don’t get to be the world leader in unmanned systems without building a culture of innovation. One distinct advantage we have is that we’re a private company. As such, we’re able to move fast and in certain cases, invest more in developing key technologies. But being first in the world also comes with the challenge of needing to invent some of the capabilities you require. For example, there have been times when no vendors or equipment that did what we needed was available, so we had to lead the way in beyond line-of-sight satellite communications more than a decade ago to support the global operation of our aircraft. We invented the detect-and-avoid system on our MQ-9B and we also upgraded the aircraft to make it certifiable for unsegregated airspaces.
The scale of these objectives represented considerable work, achievements, trust and recognition, and sophistication in finding the solutions. A lot of our industry ‘firsts’ have come about because we anticipated the needs of our customers, users, and industry and moved quickly to invest time and resources into developing solutions that would be in place when they were needed.
How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?
We have a 30-year history of UAS innovation supporting the U.S. and international customers, so we have already solved many of the problems others are just beginning to tackle. Moving from line-of-sight networking to satcom networking? We did that. Adding very wide range of mission or weapon payloads? Did it. Integrating various third-party sensors and communications? Did it. Delivering consistent results at scale, across hundreds and hundreds of aircraft? Did it.
Many of our competitors are still trying to achieve our previous successes, while we continue to advance. Our work in global civil airspace integration for the MQ-9B – so that our UAS can see, and be seen, in commercial air traffic lanes and civilian airports – is cutting edge. We’re never content with the status quo.
Late last year, we unveiled our new Mojave short take-off and landing prototype, which radically reduces the length of runway needed for large UAS to operate and allows for non-traditional operating locations. Mojave lets you take an advanced UAS and fly it from a variety of unpaved surfaces. No one else builds aircraft like these.
Our aircraft are ubiquitous, providing safety and security to allied nations throughout the world. Every minute of every day, almost 70 GA-ASI aircraft are flying in support of customer missions. When describing the 7 million hours track record, importantly this was achieved at a reliability rate above 90%, which has been a sustained, critical requirement from all our users. This is all we do, and we do it very well.
This breadth of experience also means we appreciate that every operation or region of the globe is different if not unique. That’s why, at GA-ASI, with our partners at Team SkyGuardian Canada, we are quite thrilled to tackle this vast national region and unique set of requirements in Canada, and truly transform defence and security aerospace with the RCAF and the Canadian Armed Forces.
What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?
Information dominance is the key to defence and security in the future, regardless of what happens or where the threat occurs, or comes from. UAS have proven their ability to drastically increase information dominance through advanced sensing, data collection and intelligence sharing, by robust persistence over threat areas. When you can better anticipate what is coming, you have more time to adapt, react and respond. Shortening the time from recognition to response is critical. That’s why UAS have proven so successful and high demand. The trend, however, will clearly be the continued demand for agility, reliability and efficiency. This has always been a central tenet and resultant approach for defence and security in Canada. Canada employs all its capabilities with a multi-mission mindset, and that is the agility that we have conceived and built into our systems since the very beginning.
With UAS, we’re starting with a platform that provides what no others can. Our aircraft fly continuously for 25, 30, even 40 consecutive hours. When they are working in shifts, they can watch a key section of coastline, or a borderline, or another area of interest, nonstop. Anyone down below cannot simply wait for them to leave. With their various sensors, you can’t hide from them under the clouds or bad weather – they will see everything that’s taking place and that is invaluable for defense and security officials.
You asked about what’s driving changes in our field – another area where we’re leading is on the part of the intelligence ecosystem that’s downstream from the UAS. So, these aircraft are up there for 35 hours at a time, patrolling, watching nonstop – how are the Canadian Forces and other officials who depend on the intelligence going to make sense of all that surveillance? Our systems make it simple. It’s more than the aircraft. Your military or intelligence or other personnel aren’t buried under a huge tidal wave of data. They don’t need to search for a needle in this huge haystack. What we’re doing is not only building the aircraft and systems to collect all the data, but we’re also providing the systems to enable people’s decisions, and actions.
The UAS sector has evolved to operate with a very wide range of capabilities and technologies to complement, optimize and operate at the machine-to-machine speed, thus the critical need for interoperability. In the aerospace sector, Manned and Unmanned Teaming capability is the long-term irreversible trend, and we GA-ASI are thrilled to be at the fore front of these advancements globally.
What is your parting piece of advice?
Regardless how technically focused your organization might be, administratively focused, or a free- thinking structure, be sure to spend ample time communicating with your team. (Hint: you will run out of time.)