In the nascent commercial drone industry, San Francisco start-up Airware is vying for a crucial role: the operating system.
The value of a popularized operating system has been seen before in the tech world. Computers took off after MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows arrived. Smartphones rose after Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
On Thursday, Airware released its operating system, dubbed the Aerial Information Platform, which it expects to catalyze the drone industry to tap into the full potential of the powerful technology.
“The introduction of DOS and Windows in the PC industry enabled the ecosystem of hardware vendors to make compatible hardware and enabled software developers to develop applications over time that early on in the industry people didn’t even imagine,” said Airware chief executive Jonathan Downey.
Of course, the parallel with computers and smartphones isn’t perfect, as Airware is only focused on the commercial market, and its operating system will be expensive. Airware will offer it for $2,500 per year for each drone.
But the platform could prove to be a powerful unifying force that lets companies gather and process data from their drones with more tools and fewer headaches. Airware includes software to plan flight routes and then fly autonomously.
“Often times you’ll see companies who are deploying drones in the field, they have a laptop and they’re running eight different applications,” Downey said. “By building a platform in the cloud like we have at Airware and with third-party cloud integrations, with companies like Pix4D, companies can fly a drone, collect data — all that data ends up in the same place in the cloud and then via multiple third-party integrations can decide what tools they want to use all in one place to generate different reports.”
Airware won’t release the cloud aspect of its platform until this summer. Airware felt the bulk of the platform was ready enough to unveil now, after seeing it work on multiple types of drones from different manufacturers trying different tasks in a range of countries.
One of Airware’s beta testers was Josh Kornoff. The Allied Drones president tells me he plans to put Airware on all of the drones he builds. He custom builds drones for everything from radiation sensing to mapping and surveying of mines. Kornoff said other autopilot solutions he’s tested weren’t up to snuff — only good enough for hobbyists — or were clunky old military systems.
GE Ventures managing director Alex Tepper shared a similar sentinemnt, that Airware has found a sweet spot between the hobby systems and the military systems, which haven’t successful moved up and down the market, respectively.
Airware is partnering with GE to provide commercial drone applications for its customers. (GE’s venture arm also made an investment in Airware in late 2014) GE says that the variety of demands it gets from customers, ranging from oil and gas companies to power companies and transportation companies, requires a flexible platform such as Airware’s.
To win out as the de facto platform for commercial drones, Downey told me Airware’s focus isn’t having the most app developers or the most apps available, but creating the most enterprise value.
“If you can help companies manage their vegetation encroachment 5 percent more efficiently or 10 percent more efficiently and it’s worth tens of millions of dollars to the company, that is going to lead to drones being deployed in really significant ways,” Downey said. “Which is going to require a lot of vehicle manufacturers to be involved, which is going to require compatibility and adoption on their part of a common standard and platform.”
Airware is also building regulatory and insurance compliance into its platform. It doesn’t want those barriers to stop large companies from scaling their drone operations. Airware sits on an FAA committee, and is talking with insurance companies about what safe drone operations look like.
Airware may sound a bit like DroneDeploy, which launched mobile tools in March to simplify automated data gathering for farmers and other businesses. Both are betting on the cloud, where they will store and process data. One distinction is how they connect with their drones. DroneDeploy is leveraging 3G and 4G cellular networks. Airware relies on a local radio connection. Downey said that Airware has found it’s common for drone operators to be doing industrial inspections in remote locations where there is no cellular service.
Drone America chief executive Mike Richards has beta tested Airware’s platform on the drones he builds for humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, and says it is making his work easier. He used to have to pay for more expensive military-grade autopilots.
“When I was a kid we used to look up at the sky and go ‘Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s Superman!’ Because that was the caped crusader,” Richards said. “Now I can see that our kids will look up at the sky and go ‘Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s a drone!’ And the interesting thing is unlike the caped crusader, which is totally fiction, those drones will actually have the ability to go and help someone.”