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The race is on to be the Microsoft Office for drones

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Startups like Airware want to help big, cautious corporations quickly take flight

Drones are now gadgets that the average consumer can easily own and operate. In fact, the FAA predicts that 2.5 million of them will be sold in the US this year. But aerial robots, at least for now, are unlikely to ever become as ubiquitous as personal computers or smartphones. The big growth in unmanned aerial vehicles is going to come from companies that will use drones to collect data or deliver packages. And those companies are going to want someone to hold their hand through the process.

Airware, a San Francisco startup with some big name backers, is trying to become, the Microsoft Office of the drone world, the default software suite for big corporations that want to put sensors in the sky with minimal risk. It's competing with companies like Drone Deploy and SkyCatch. Today Airware announced a major new client, State Farm insurance.

Airware will providing the software to plan flights, capture aerial images, and process and organize whatever data is collected. In addition, Airware is now expanding its offering beyond just the software. It will be selecting and customizing the drones State Farm flies, and even providing the pilots who will accompany claims adjusters and operate the aircraft.

Founder and CEO Jonathan Downey says State Farm is planning to begin operations in the US over the next few months. If you call in a claim on a roof damaged by high winds or hail this summer, an Airware drone may stop by to buzz your house. As for exactly what kind of drone State Farm is flying, Airware won’t say. Most of their clients from the Fortune 500 have so far worked with the kind of cheap, easy-to-use consumer drones we review here on The Verge. But for inspecting rooftops, Airware went with an industrial grade unit that can deliver longer flight times, more detailed images, and greater stability in high winds.

A heavy hitter joins the board

Along with its first big client, Airware announced the addition of John Chambers, the veteran CEO of Cisco, to its board. Chambers will help the company to optimize its enterprise sales funnel, which is a fancy way of saying he knows how to close big deals with stuffy Fortune 500 customers. Airware has also banked another $30 million in funding as part of a Series C round of venture capital. The round was led by Next World Capital with John Chambers, Andreessen Horowitz, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers all investing as well.

Downey, a veteran of Boeing, is an astute observer of the rapidly shifting legal landscape for drones. He expects the FAA to issue its small drone rules by this summer, eliminating the need for complex exemptions and licensed pilots. That will open the floodgates for commercial operators to start using them at scale, an inflection point Airware is positioning itself to capitalize on. And while it won’t reveal any names yet, Airware says it has also signed on Fortune 500 clients in in the utility, telecom, and oil industries.