Section 2: Disruption in Process:
Jonathan Downey and Buddy Michini, Airware: Making Drones Easy
Jonathan Downey and Buddy Michini, Airware
Airware, a technology company building a development platform for drones, is one of a number of firms in the emerging drone industry, which includes Skycatch and DroneDeploy.
What is the need for Airware?
Approximately 10 years ago, all companies in the industry were building individual drones for different uses. If a person wanted to build a drone for a specific purpose, be it agriculture, inspection, law enforcement or anti-poaching, they had to do one of three things, all of which were challenging decisions. Firstly, they could leverage black-box autopilots, which are very difficult to customize or tailor to specific applications. Secondly, they could build all of the electronics and the software for the drones from scratch, which is what many manufacturers did out of necessity because they couldn’t leverage black-box solutions. But this approach obviously takes a lot of time, costs a lot of money and focuses companies on the layer of the technology that’s common to all drones instead of the layer of the technology that differentiates their drone for specific uses. Thirdly, they could use one of various open-source software projects, but these lack the reliability and safety required for commercial use.
Left with three bad options for building drones for commercial use, we looked at the drone space and found that the industry needed a robust, highly reliable enterprise solution, which was open enough to extend its capabilities in hardware and software, and could be used meaningfully by all commercial drones regardless of their purpose.
One of the interesting things about this market is that the applications are extremely diverse, so it’s very difficult to tailor the vehicles to such a wide range of applications. Additionally, the technology is also diverse, and so the types of sensors and payloads, for example, are also fairly widespread. At Airware, we are making it easier to tailor the drones to this diverse set of applications.
What are examples of commercial and humanitarian drone use?
Imagine if bridges are inspected once a week as opposed to once a year; law enforcement officials have easy access to a high-end drone to respond quickly, and search-and-rescue operations begin instantaneously with 20 aerial drones as opposed to one manned helicopter.
We have worked closely with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to demonstrate drone use for wildlife conservation and anti-poaching. We tested a drone to fly at both day and night. The solution is fully autonomous during flight and even during launching and landing of the aircraft. The operator just directs the aircraft to the areas they wish to survey and can use either daytime or night-time cameras to see the wildlife, as well as potential vehicles or individuals in the area.
This is an early-use example of the technology. As it becomes more mature, this technology can be used by the conservancy for a wildlife census where the aircraft covers a region and uses machine vision to automatically detect how many animals are in a certain area and whether or not there’s the presence of things like a vehicle.
Agriculture is also an example of commercial use for the technology. Drones with special types of cameras are already being used over farmland and buildings to conduct aerial surveys, which enable farmers to target irrigation and fertilizers, and to know when a crop is ready to harvest.
Delta Drone, one of our early beta customers, is using our platform with their drones for open-air mine surveying in which they will fly over a mine and survey it to build a 3D model. This is done frequently, and tells the mine operators exactly how much volume they’ve extracted with much more precision and frequency than the ground-based surveying techniques.
We are also working with researchers at MIT who are exploring the use of drones to deliver vaccines to remote areas of Africa and South-East Asia. These areas have many smaller population centres of 200 or even 100 people, and are therefore too small to stockpile all of the medicines and vaccines that they might need locally. These vaccines, typically transported from an area hospital, may need to be refrigerated and moved over roads that are impassable because of rainfall during certain times of the year. This is a real challenge that can be addressed with drones.
We really think this is a transformational technology for society at large because there is a lot of information that can be collected and challenges that can be solved with this technology. These opportunities are available, but no one has had the platform to build a successful drone system – until Airware.
What’s your vision for the drone industry?
There are currently about 35 large players building drones for commercial applications. They are focused on high-end applications, but are also moving into a wider number. As the cost of the drones declines, the technology is going to be available for many more companies and applications. Additionally, there are another 550 or more companies globally who are building drones for different applications. Many of those companies have just started in the last 3 to 12 months, and we are going to see many of them build great products.
It can take a really long time to bring a drone product to market, but by leveraging a platform like the one Airware is building, a lot of those companies will be able to get to market much quicker, with drones that are very focused on specific-use cases. We will see the number of drone companies significantly grow.
The ultimate goal of the platform we’re building is for businesses to think of drones as tools, just like laptops and commercial enterprise software. We want to put drones in that same category of tools that you can use to make your business more successful. There are some great applications worldwide that we think drones can be used for.
What is the rationale for Airware creating an ecosystem for drones?
The rationale stems from the fact that the diversity of applications is very large. To chase such a wide range of applications would actually require a lot of different types of vehicles, and so some vehicles are electric, some are gas-powered and some are very small and can be carried in a backpack before they’re launched by hand. Other aircraft may weigh 50 or 100 pounds and have the ability to carry large amounts of equipment. Some aircraft can fly for 25 minutes, others can fly for 12 or even 24 hours. Under the huge variety of applications is a huge variety of hardware.
We think there are many similarities between the drone industry and the early PC industry, where PCs were used for a wide variety of different applications and there was different underlying hardware, too. Development for PCs really reached a point of rapid progression with the introduction of DOS [Disk Operating System] and, shortly after, with Windows, when people could really develop a common platform.
The other factor is that the data these vehicles collect is also extremely diverse, i.e. the applications that they are collecting the data for. We don’t aspire to be experts in agricultural surveying or open-air mining operations or search-and-rescue, because that requires expertise that other people have. We want to enable those people to take their expertise and focus it on their application without worrying about all of the underlying drone technology. An ecosystem is a very natural progression for the product as we see it, and we really want to enable people within the ecosystem to do what they want to do.
Our goal is that other companies in the ecosystem can add value in a lot of different ways, while the hardware, the software and the cloud integration is taken care of.
We have looked at all the different applications and have found commonalities: the drone needs to fly in a reliable way; it needs to be compliant with regulations; users need reliable communication with the drone; and the user interfaces that control the drone must be easy enough so that a pilot or engineer isn’t needed to operate the drone. We focus on the elements that are common across all-use cases for drones.
What are the features of a start-up that mean it is best placed to create this technology ecosystem, rather than an incumbent?
We can do this because of the history of our company and the composition of our team. We have a unique combination of traditional, experienced aerospace engineering and rapidly moving Silicon Valley types who have start-up experience. Our first five people from the team came from MIT, Georgia Tech and Boeing. We had a lot of expertise with drones and many of us worked on the development of a large, several-thousand-pound fully autonomous helicopter at Boeing, but we were also very disenfranchised with the way that aerospace projects were typically developed, with long time frames and subsequently slow innovation. We wanted to see that addressed in a much more rapid and innovative way.
What’s your opinion regarding pending regulation?
It’s certainly the case that we are asked a lot about what regulations could be like. We worry about them falling at either of the extreme ends of the spectrum. Either there are no regulations at all, allowing a lot of bad actors to be involved in flying drones unsafely and not reliably, which creates worry about the use of the technology; or, on the other end of the spectrum, we worry that the regulations stifle innovation and that only the largest multinational conglomerates can possibly fill out enough forms to be compliant and part of the industry and innovation.
But we’ve certainly seen some reasonable regulations already in effect in countries like France, which probably has the most mature regulatory framework for the commercial operations of drones today. Regulations should centre around common sense and safety, and have basic principles for safe operations. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a little bit behind, but there is definitely movement and progress. The opportunity is so large for this technology that the regulation will ultimately emerge. There are a few question marks, but, in general, the trend seems to be very positive.
Looking ahead, it’s important that the regulation focuses on the ultimate possibilities for this technology, not restricting its use. Right now, some discussion around regulation has included, “Someone must watch the drone while it is in use”, because they worry that the drone is unsafe otherwise. Ideally, however, what regulation should say is, “You need mechanisms which ensure the drone doesn’t hit buildings or other aircraft”. This allows for innovators and entrepreneurs to solve the technology problem [and] ensure the drones are safe, reliable and don’t collide with obstacles – and maybe that involves a person watching it, and maybe it doesn’t.