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An Operating System for the Commercial Drone Era

As commercial uses of drones emerge, startups create software that could help the devices take flight.

At Boeing, Jonathan Downey once worked on the development of the A160 Hummingbird, an unmanned helicopter used by the U.S. military.

Now drones are just starting to launch into nonmilitary markets, and Downey’s startup, Airware, hopes to build a standard operating system to speed their adoption. He compares his company’s platform to DOS, the Microsoft software that helped propel the early era of personal computing.

The Newport Beach, California, company, which raised $10.7 million from venture-capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures last month, is among a number of startups that are anticipating a future where it will be common for businesses, public agencies, and individuals to pilot drones. Drone Deploy, another startup, has begun building software for organizations to manage and coördinate drone “fleets,” much as FedEx tracks delivery vehicles.

In the U.S., none of this is yet a reality in part because only a limited number of government entities and research institutions have gotten permission to fly drones in domestic airspace. However, Congress has tasked the Federal Aviation Administration to set up rules governing drones in U.S. airspace by 2015, and some companies are already lobbying for the government to hurry up—despite others’ privacy and safety concerns. One industry group projects an $82 billion economic impact from drones operating in the U.S. in the decade after the rules are put in place. In the U.K. and France, commercial drones are already taking to the skies.

The costs of the computing and sensor components needed to build a drone’s autopilot—the hardware and software system that navigates and communicates—are dropping rapidly. “We’re having this homebrew computer club moment, where suddenly we can offer military-grade technologies for toy prices,” said Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, when he spoke at a packed event about commercial drones at Stanford University earlier this year. Several years ago, Anderson founded a company, 3D Robotics, that sells simple, ready-to-fly unmanned vehicle systems that cost as little as $599, and DIY kits for less.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, defense contractors have produced expensive, sophisticated “black box” systems that are not easy to modify or customize. Downey, who is himself a commercial pilot, says Airware is aiming to straddle today’s hobbyist and military applications.

“People would hate to see 100 different drones flying overhead, with 100 different hardware platforms and 100 different software platforms running on those drones,” he says. “Some degree of standardization is in everyone’s best interests.”

Airware’s Linux-based autopilot, at a cost of $4,000 to $7,000, is meant to make it easy to manufacture drones that could easily be customized by customers or third-party developers who want to build apps or integrate new kinds of sensors.

Mary Cummings, director of MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab, who knew Downey when he entered drone competitions as an MIT student, says such a system is “sorely needed” because most drone-flying technologies are proprietary, closed systems. If Airware pulls off its goal to become a widespread platform, she says, its architecture could boost the emerging commercial industry. While huge companies such as Lockheed Martin have said they are working on similar projects, she says, results have been slow to materialize.

Airware’s early work provides a glimpse into some realms where commercial drone technology holds promise, which many expect to include agriculture, infrastructure maintenance, and law enforcement. Its first customer, Delta Drone, in France, makes drones that are being used to assist both skier search-and-rescue teams and a surface­-mining company. A Kenya nonprofit has worked with Airware to integrate RFID tag readers into a drone that helps track endangered rhinos and monitor poaching. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is using Airware’s software to develop drones that can deliver small bundles of vaccines to regions with poor road networks.

Of course, business opportunities for these startups also depend on how societies address the surveillance and safety concerns that drones pose. Already, to the unease of civil-liberties advocates, more and more police departments are seeking permission to deploy them to fight crime.

If the commercial drone industry does become a big business, the biggest opportunities, says Jono Millin, a cofounder of Drone Deploy, could be for those companies that make the killer apps, not the hardware itself. “Our big focus is getting stuff done with drones,” he says.

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