Tombo Jones named director of Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership

Tombo Jones has been appointed director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a role he’ll assume on April 5 after two years as the partnership’s associate director.

Since 2019, Jones has managed the day-to-day operations of the busy FAA-designated drone test site and overseen a staff that has tripled in size over the last five years as the nationally renowned research group has taken on increasingly ambitious projects and expanded its revenue by a factor of five. MAAP’s work has repeatedly broken new ground in the industry and yielded data that has informed regulations and standards.

Jones will build on that success in his new role, directing the management and growth of a portfolio that encompasses major federal drone-integration initiatives and complex technical research projects.

He will take over from Mark Blanks, who has directed MAAP since July 2016. Blanks is moving to a position with Alphabet subsidiary Wing.

“It has been remarkable to watch MAAP’s evolution from a young research group in an emerging field to a major force influencing the direction of drone integration in the United States, and we are tremendously fortunate to have Tombo as its next director,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, MAAP’s parent organization. “He is a talented leader with vast technical knowledge and a gift for fostering a supportive, productive team culture. Those attributes that have already helped accelerate MAAP’s success. We’re grateful to Mark for his leadership, which has helped MAAP become one of the preeminent research groups at Virginia Tech, one that distinguishes the university among its peers and will continue to thrive.”

Jones joined MAAP in 2017 as its UAS safety manager, following more than a decade in progressively larger management roles in the U.S. Coast Guard. He developed risk assessments and mitigations for five of MAAP’s major research projects, leveraging his experience navigating and interpreting FAA regulations and training Coast Guard pilots to evaluate and manage risk.

These efforts ultimately evolved into the development of the formal process MAAP uses to build safety cases for the new drone operations their customers come to them to determine how to conduct. That process, built around systematically identifying and reducing risk, has been heralded by the FAA as a model for other organizations and has been a major factor driving MAAP’s success in winning unique approvals.

Jones led the MAAP team that worked with State Farm on the company’s nationwide waiver for drone flights over people and beyond visual line of sight, a first in the industry and a resounding proof of principle for the safety case process. He also helped author Virginia Tech’s university drone policy, which has become a model for other universities nationwide.

As MAAP continued to grow, Jones was quickly tapped for a program management role. He took on the leadership of the group’s work under the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a major federal initiative that paired state and local governments with companies and federal agencies in a concerted effort to enable more advanced drone operations. Virginia’s IPP team (helmed by the state’s Center for Innovative Technology) was one of the most productive in the national program, logging achievements including the first Air Carrier certificate for a drone company and the first commercial drone-delivery service in the U.S. to deliver goods directly to residences on demand.

He was named associate director in 2019, expanding his oversight to include all of MAAP’s increasingly broad portfolio. By then, this included multilateral collaborative research efforts developing solutions for unmanned traffic management and “detect and avoid,” both major technological pillars of drone integration, and research for Naval Air Systems Command evaluating drones’ risk to people and property on the ground — in addition to the IPP and, now, its successor program BEYOND.

“I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead this incredibly talented team we’ve built here at MAAP,” Jones said. “We’re at a pivotal time in the industry — new rulemaking is laying the groundwork for much more advanced operations but we’re still facing significant unknowns and technological challenges. The work we do over the next few years will help inform where the industry goes from here. Mark’s leadership and vision have helped shape MAAP into an organization that’s highly respected in the regulatory community and highly valued by our partners, and we’re now in a position to have an even greater impact on safe, evidence-based drone integration.”

MAAP will continue to benefit from the extensive skills Jones cultivated during his tenure in the Coast Guard. He eventually rose to become chief of administration and logistics at a Coast Guard Sector, managing a large staff across multiple divisions. He also served as the organization’s safety management systems and standardization instructor and as its aviation operations officer and chief pilot, leading the implementation of risk mitigations for 900 missions every year.

As director of the Coast Guard’s Crew Resource Management program, he developed a keen understanding of the ways that human factors like communication and physiological stress can increase the risk of an operation, and how discipline and the conscious development of positive habits can reduce it. This marriage of thoughtful leadership and an unwavering focus on safety has become an integral part of what has enabled MAAP to take on increasingly demanding projects and execute them successfully.  

“Tombo has a remarkable ability to see the strengths of a team and bring out the best in them, in addition to being just exceptionally talented,” Blanks said. “The way we approach safety today is attributable in large part to Tombo’s gift for cultivating a holistic culture of safety that weaves together new best practices and foundational principles. There’s no question that his influence has been integral to MAAP’s success. Leading this team to break new ground in drone integration has been the highlight of my career, and I’m glad to leave them in incredible hands.”

Before joining the Coast Guard, Jones served for seven years in the U.S. Army, where he received numerous awards and commendations including the Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star.

He is married to Robin Jones, assistant vice president for Innovation Campus student services. They have two daughters, Caroline and Audrey Kate.

Jones is a member of multiple professional groups and organizations including the UAS Working Group of the Helicopter Association International and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. He is a certified air transport pilot and a certified flight instructor with an instrument rating.

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