Like it or not, drones will take to the skies in the United States in the next couple of years in record numbers.
They’ll come in an array of designs and sizes. Photographers, hobbyists, farmers, public utilities and government agencies will use them. Many of the drones will carry cameras, barometers, listening devices and other sensors through the air. A few will even deliver goods.
San Francisco-based startup Airware hopes that all these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, will have something in common: They’ll run on the Airware platform.
That’s because Airware is a drone company that doesn’t make drones. It designs hardware, software and cloud services for commercial UAVs.
“All the commercial drone companies we’re looking at are trying to find a better solution than what they’re using now,” Airware founder Jonathan Downey says.
One of the biggest hurdles for the UAV industry in the United States has been the Federal Aviation Administration, which has grounded most commercial drones while it figures out how to oversee them. By the end of this year, the FAA is expected to release a road map for regulating drones in U.S. airspace.
Airware plans to be ready. The company sees itself in a similar position to where Intel and Microsoft were in the 1980s, just before the birth of the PC market. When federal regulators approve commercial drones for more uses, Airware wants to be the underlying framework for the devices’ software and operating systems.
Instead of building a platform from scratch or relying on old military or open-source systems, UAV manufacturers can build their drones on top of Airware’s platform.
Downey, 30, began working on UAVs while a student at MIT. A licensed pilot, he later worked at Boeing on an autonomous helicopter. Downey founded his company in 2011 and has raised more than $40 million in venture capital funding, but this year the Airware platform will finally shed its “beta” label.
His startup is working with several companies, including Delta Drone, one of the largest UAV makers in France, where commercial drones are more common. Airware’s platform can be tailored to a variety of drone uses and has even helped protect endangered white rhinos from poachers at a wildlife reserve in Kenya.
Airware also is working with NASA on creating an air traffic management system for UAVs. An advanced system will be needed to keep drones from colliding with manned aerial vehicles, and having a consistent drone OS could be a huge help.
“It really benefits everybody in this space,” Downey says. “The FAA doesn’t want 100 different drones (flying) with 100 different kinds of software on them.”