Drones being built and deployed for commercial usage aren’t as fun or exciting as the expensive flying toys that let you take killer aerial selfies, but it’s a space where uncrewed aerial vehicles could really make major changes for how companies do business. Last summer, San Francisco-based company Airware announced its intentions to build a platform to help make it easier for companies to deploy drones, and today the company is formally launching its Aerial Information Platform — a standardized drone operating system that could make it far simpler for companies to deploy and manage fleets of drones.
"For drones to be used in a growing number of applications across a number of industries, there needs to be a platform," Airware CEO and founder Jonathan Downey said at a press briefing held in the middle of a farm in northern California — a space ideal for doing some drone tests. "The idea [behind Airware] was that we would support a wide variety of vehicles required to address the myriad of different applications for which drones will be a key part of the solution." Downey’s vision is that any drone running the Airware platform can be configured, deployed, and run the same way as any other — even if the vehicle itself is a completely different drone build by a different company for another purpose.
Airware believes a standard platform is needed for drones to really work for businesses
To make that happen, Airware spent the last four years building what it calls the Aerial Information Platform — a system that encompasses both software and hardware that standardizes the drone experience for a company. The first piece of that puzzle is the "flight core" — a hardware autopilot box that can be attached to a drone that runs Airware’s flight software.
The flight core then communicates from the drone with operators on the ground running Airware’s two different software solutions. The Ground Control Station program lets you build your flight plan, set geofences and contingency plans for the drone, and basically tweak anything related to the in-flight mission the drone will carry out. The farm provided a perfect venue for showing off the software — Airware’s CTO Buddy Michini set up a geofence over the farm, dictated how high and fast the drone would fly, built a flight plan for surveying the area and shooting photos every second, and then launched a test drone to carry out his instructions.
There’s also a higher-level configuration manager that lets administrators build out bigger projects with specific goals — that can all be then sent down to the Ground Control program where the actual operators will carry out their jobs. While there’s no doubt that the demonstration Airware showed off made things look as simple as possible, it did feel highly approachable, with a relatively simple learning curve. That’s by design — Airware said it looked at the UIs for various drone programs and found most were designed for pilots or engineers, whereas the Airware system is designed to be easily approachable by the employees it expects to carry out these tasks.
As for the kinds of companies that might deploy such a system, Airware had two partners on hand — GE (who is also an investor in the company) and telecommunications company Infinigy. When talking about Infinigy, Downey noted that 13 people died in 2013 while carrying out cell phone tower inspections — so Infinigy hopes to use drones to replace people when doing basic checks on towers, saving humans for only situations in which repair or other actual physical work is needed.
GE didn’t talk specifics about how it might use drones, Downey said that the company was working with utility companies to utilize drones to check power lines and equipment against vegetation encroachment. And manufacturer Drone America is already building drones that can deliver lifeboats in emergencies as well as carry out search-and-rescue missions.
Can Airware become for drones what Android is for smartphones?
While Airware is only rolling out the flight core and its two software platforms today, the company has more planned. The "app core" will let third parties write plug-ins for the Ground Control software that could expand a drone’s capabilities when it launches in the coming months, and Airware is also launching a cloud-based platform for managing a company’s drone fleet in ways that extend beyond simple missions — it’ll help companies (and its end users) deal with the insurance and government compliance requirements needed for managing a drone fleet. The cloud platform will also make it easy to analyze the various sensor data gathered by a drone flight and share it within an organization.
It’s the early days for Airware, and the company is a rather unique entity in the drone space, so it isn’t trying to rush its new drone operating system out there — the company is working with a handful of manufacturers now, and says that it is currently targeting the "top 50" commercial drone manufacturers for potential partnerships. It remains to be seen if those drone manufacturers — as well as the companies who need the drones for their work — will find Airware’s platform to be worth the cost ($2,500 per drone, per year).
But in a new market with no real status quo, Airware is betting that it can become the universal drone OS across all hardware makers. That’s easier said than done though — some analysts are already imagining a world in which hardware quickly becomes commoditized, with software being the differentiator. "Next year and the year after that, you’re going to see hundreds of DJI clones," Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz (an investor in Airware), told The Wall Street Journal yesterday. "I don’t think long term that’s a good bet...Software is going to eat drones." For the moment, at least, Airware’s got the head start in the race to find what could become for drones what Android is for smartphones.