Silicon Valley News

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Silicon Valley fuels commercial drones

An Airware employee installing drone system.  (Airware)

Silicon Valley venture capital is funding the nascent commercial drone market.

Drone startup Airware today announced a $10.7 investment from Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley's leading venture capital firms. Google Ventures, the investment arm of the search giant, is also funding the drone startup.

Airware is a recent alumnus of Y Combinator, the world's leading tech incubator.

The company is based in Newport Beach, near the southern California aerospace hub. Airware doesn't actually build drones. They provide a drone platform that includes hardware, software and an API. The hardware includes radio technology, GPS and sensors.

Software, however, is the chief component of the Airware platform. "I think of it as the operating system, " says Chris Dixon, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz who will become a member of the Airware board. "There is a hardware component, but that is only because there is no one who has emerged yet to be the Intel to Airware's Windows."

Chris Downey, the chief executive of Airware, worked on drones while studying at MIT. Later, at Boeing, he worked on a pilotless helicopter intended for the military.

Initially, Airware is developing applications that are not intended for the military. Downey does not plan to compete with the larger aerospace military suppliers. The startup's platform is not being developed for hobbyist either. Airware is targeting the middle ground: drones in the $20,000 to $50,000  range.

For example, Airware is integrating its system into drones that will be used to prevent the poaching of rhinos in Africa with the aid of RFID tags.

"The majority of applications are away from people and away from cities in places unlikely to interfere with air traffic or people on the ground," says Downey. "Anywhere it is too expensive or too dangerous to send in a person."

Downey told Wired "there is a strong use case in infrastructure inspections - power lines, pipelines, bridges, levies and oil derricks - where in some cases people are doing these dull, dangerous jobs, drones can be used to keep people out of harm's way."

Currently, drones equipped with cameras and sensors are being deployed over power lines in Europe and oil pipelines in Africa. They are also being used in search-and-rescue missions in the French Alps.

For the time being, the Airware platform will be used overseas. Federal Aviation Administration regulations for small drones will probably not be issued until 2015.

Airware shows off its drone platform in the video below.

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