Lots of different industries are interested in the potential for drones to improve their businesses, from agriculture to mining to merchants like Amazon. There is a wide range of powerful units that can be bought off the shelf. The challenge for most companies is creating the software, sensor packages, and safeguards they need to make drones a practical reality for their day-to-day work. Airware, a drone startup based in San Francisco, hopes to solve those problems by providing an aerial operating system. Today it announced it had raised $25 million in a round led by Kleiner Perkins to grow its staff and launch its product to the wider public.
Airware has been operating in private beta, working with international partners where commercial drones are legal, and more quietly testing with companies in the US that hope to use drones once the FAA issues its new regulations. The new rules are expected in 2015, and the industry is projected to grow into a $13.5 billion business within the first three years of commercial operations. "We have ironed out the product, the business plan, the customers we expect to ship to," says Airware founder and CEO Jonathan Downey. "Over the last year of testing, the scope of what we're trying to do has expanded pretty significantly."
Initially Airware set out to create the software package companies would need to fly their craft. Now it wants to create a more complete solution. It will create custom software packages to configure different arrays of sensors that are tailored to industry needs. It will still provide the software needed to fly the drones, but will also include a cloud service that helps companies to record, store, transfer, and analyze the data they collect in the field. Finally it will be ensuring that all the software is compliant with the requirements of regulators and insurance companies so that drone operators don't have to worry about the liability aspects. "We used to be just about helping you fly the aircraft, now it's a whole lot more," says Downey.
"We used to be just about helping you fly the aircraft, now it's a whole lot more."
As part of the new funding Mike Abbott, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins, will join Airware's board. Abbott was formerly the vice president of engineering at Twitter and before that led the software team at Palm, which helped create webOS. His role at Airware will be helping the young company manage the challenge of recruiting and managing an ever-larger team of engineers. "I've seen what's possible when you create a great software platform and allow other folks to build on top of that," says Abbot. "It's going to be a fascinating challenge to do that with something as complex and powerful as flying drones."
Downey acknowledges that at this point, the field is still wide open. "There will be a huge variety of different approaches. Gas-powered drones, solar powered, battery operated. Some will be light and meant to fly for weeks at a time. Others will be heavy and meant to deliver significant payloads." The commonality will be a need for software and a cloud backend. "That's what we're betting on."