Tracy Lamb

From Mathew McConaughey’s pilot to drone policy influencer: meet Tracy Lamb

Commercial drone system developer American Robotics last month named Tracy Lamb as its new Senior Advisor of Regulatory Affairs & Safety. Her role comes at a pivotal point for the drone industry as it is on the cusp of rolling out rules for flying drones Beyond Visual Line of Site (BVLOS) and as drone traffic management (UTM) becomes crucial in shaping drone operations.

And while new to American Robotics, Lamb appears to be well-suited for the role in helping shape the company’s safety and regulatory matters within the U.S. and abroad. She has 28 years of aviation experience, starting well before most of us knew what a drone was. She has completed over 100 formal SMS audits of airlines, charter companies, helicopter operators, maintenance and training organizations, and uncrewed aircraft operators across seven countries.  And while her focus these days is on aircraft with zero humans on board, her past involves serving as a private pilot for among the most notable humans on earth, including Mathew McConaughey.

Lamb sat down with The Drone Girl to talk about her past, her plans for the future, and to share some funny flying nuggets.

Tracy Lamb
Photos courtesy of Tracy Lamb.

Drone Girl: What’s the most important regulatory issue facing the drone industry right now?

Tracy Lamb: There are so many regulatory hurdles that need consideration. Technology is outpacing the human ability to convene and collaborate on these challenges, however, the industry is working hard and has the capacity to solve them. American Robotics’ precedent-setting BVLOS approval for automated operations is an amazing example of this. The BVLOS ARC is another great example, and hopefully the recommendations from that committee will be implemented.

Drone Girl: Of course, those BVLOS ARC recommendations being the ones issued just this month! This was timely.

Tracy Lamb: What the industry needs from our regulators and lawmakers is tight relations. Essentially we need to continue educating and re-educating them so that we are focusing on performance-based certification and approvals. This means thinking outside the traditional approach to aviation safety and re-evaluating how we approach our assessments of risk and operational performance.

DG: Absolutely. It was fascinating how that ARC report called out the fact that fundamental risk differences that exist between crewed aircraft and drones, and that the FAA needs to set an acceptable level of risk for drones.

TL: Both government and industry agree on the tremendous impact drones will have on our economy and on sustainability, and it really comes down to communication to bridge the gap.

DG: You have a background in manned aviation, including flying commercial aircraft. What are the biggest differences and similarities between that and drones?

TL: The biggest similarities are:

  • Attention to detail and process.
  • Respect for operational risks.
  • Discipline to learn your aircraft and your systems.
  • Processes and procedures involved to operate safely.
  • Drive to keep learning and maintain professionalism.

The biggest differences are the time and cost involved in becoming qualified to operate as a commercial drone pilot compared to a commercial crewed aircraft pilot. This has a few implications; the knowledge and skills tests required for the latter is exceedingly more comprehensive (as it should be) because your passengers’ lives are at the mercy of your hands and your brains.

DG: What drew you to the drone industry?

Tracy Lamb in 2021. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.

TL: Actually, it was my fascination with process safety and human performance. I started flying in the early 1990s for fun, and I never dreamed it would turn into a career. However, during this early time, several pilots and instructors I knew and flew with were killed in either training accidents or within months of starting their careers; all of these were totally preventable accidents. For me, this changed my whole relationship with aviation. Rather than scaring me out of the industry, it drove me to become heavily involved in safety and risk management, accident investigations, and human error. I was driven to be the best and safest pilot I could be. It was this fascination — some may say an obsession — with human performance and risk management that drew me into the drone industry, where I have the opportunity to examine the similarities and the differences and deconstruct all the operational safety components – in other words: airmanship.

DG: Wow. what a journey into aviation. So what kicked off your flying for fun into a career?

TL: I started my research into UAS at RMIT in Melbourne Australia, when I swapped out of a law degree and into the unmanned aircraft research laboratory. Since then my career in UAS has been diverse, and it has taken me to places and given me opportunities I could have never even imagined – including living in Europe and here in the USA – over six years ago.

DG: You’ve been in the industry for 28 years this year. First, congrats! Secondly, what about the industry has changed the most since then?

TL: The industry has changed a lot – one of the most important things is the awareness of diversity, and inclusion. Not only as flight crew, but fleet management, executive teams, and the board room.

DG: I’m so glad to hear you say that!

TL: I was the only female in my flight school for years, and then as a flight instructor, same thing. As my career progressed, I would occasionally meet another female pilot – and it was always a bitter and sweet interaction that we were so surprised to see another girl. That speaks volumes about the lack of diversity. Australia is a pretty macho culture, and aviation is traditionally a macho industry. As a result, there were lots of barriers and challenges I had to break through to not only survive in the industry but have success. I was able to do that because I had great role models, and mentors. This is one of the amazing things about the drone industry, as a younger industry, those diversity and inclusion challenges are really not there, and there is much more emphasis on technology and what you bring to the table as UAS operator.

DG: I completely agree! It’s awesome to see the kind of support in the drone industry for women. now to pivot on to you now, congrats on your new role as Senior Advisor of Regulatory Affairs & Safety at American Robotics.

TL: There is so much opportunity, and I’m very excited to work with the team at American Robotics – quite honestly the best commercial UAS operation and operators I have met so far in the industry.

DG: What’s one thing you hope to accomplish within your first year in the role?

TL: My role will be assisting AR in gaining more advanced operational approvals, and helping to educate the FAA on how we are changing the face of operational safety performance with the way we handle risk in highly autonomous systems.

DG: I understand you have a past history of weird wildlife encounters. Please tell me more!

TL: Haaaa yes!! One of the real safety considerations in some UAS operations is wild animals. Don’t find yourself out in the field and so focused on your operation, that you don’t see the big prehistoric bird walking up behind you, or the snake that is crawling over your boot.

DG: I guess you’ve worked a lot in Australia, so it sounds like anything goes down under!

TL: Snake bite kits are an essential component of UAS pilots tactical gear in Australia and South Africa.

DG: No way. I’ll be sure to include that in my next inflight checklist if I’m ever there. Pro-tip for sure!

TL: Once I was working for a UAS operator doing environmental data collection and a giant eagle flew away with our Sensefly eBee.  Just took it away to their nest – we still to this day don’t know if the eagle wanted to eat it, or keep it as a toy – secretly they are probably using it! I have South African friends who had to flee their job site because a tribe of monkeys came after their equipment – again back to risk management – to operate safely you have to consider more than just the airspace.

DG: Oh my! People always ask me if drones are dangerous, and generally the answer is no. But maybe I should reassess! Just kidding.

TL: The beauty of working for American Robotics with their autonomous operation is that I don’t have to be out in the field with creatures!

DG: Okay so we’ve got monkeys and eagles, and maybe this is not exactly the smoothest segue, but I also hear you flew Mathew McConaughey once? Tell me more!

TL: I was his pilot for five separate international trips. He wanted to go diving and surfing in one of the world’s most picturesque places, Kaveing in remote Papua New Guinea. I picked him and his then girlfriend Camila [now his wife] up from Hamilton island off the northeastern coast of Australia, in a Cessna Citation II, [small 10 seat corporate jet] and flew up to Port Moresby. Then we went into Kaveing, which it’s about three hours north.

The best part was I stayed up there for five luxurious days every time, and I got to swim and snorkel. Both Mathew and Camila were both so lovely. On one trip, I heard a weird sound coming from what I thought was an issue with the engines. I turned around and there was Mathew playing his digeridoo. I had not seen him even bring that on board – so that was a surprise.

DG: Incredible! I imagine life as a pilot for corporate jets was fun.

TL: Flying corporate jets for a couple of years was lots of fun. In addition to Mathew McConaughey, I flew heaps of Australian celebrities including Kylie Minogue, and lots of politicians, but Mathew was definitely the highlight. I live in Texas now, and when I heard he may run for office — I just want to say you have my vote Mathew.

DG: Last question: if you could have a delivery drone bring you anything right now, what would it be?

TL: There are two things I can’t get enough of and that is coffee, and shoes. So yes, hot coffee and high shoes!

This interview was edited for clarity and length. Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here.


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