Summary:

Low-cost hardware for operating low-cost drones has proliferated, but running a bunch of them from one computer has been a challenge. A startup called DroneDeploy wants to make a business out of that problem.

DroneDeploy Mike Winn
photo: Jordan Novet

Not many software startups can claim to be running in the cloud in more ways than one. Startup DroneDeploy can, in the sense that it promises to let one person manage the navigation of a bunch of commercial unmanned aircraft systems.

The San Francisco company is finalizing its business model and working to make sure the software will be secure enough to avoid being hacked, but DroneDeploy co-founder Mike Winn (pictured) doesn’t sound too anxious. He expects lots of demand ahead for the product he and his team are developing.

“In the last year or 18 months, there’s just been this explosion of hardware that’s faster and cheaper,” Winn said, referring to motors that can be connected to Arduinos and other low-cost gear. But tools for managing multiple devices from one central place have been slower to emerge, and now DroneDeploy is aiming to meet that need.

Winn and the company’s two other founders, Jono Millin and Nicholas Pilkington, met during their college years in South Africa.

“We got to drones because I’ve been flying model helicopters for the past six years,” Winn said. With some extra money he had hanging around after college, he ended up buying a couple more helicopters and shipping them to Millin and Pilkington, both of whom were studying machine learning in the United Kingdom while Winn was building technology for Google salespeople in Dublin. “I thought, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a business here,'” Winn recalled.

An initial use the trio discussed: using drones to keep an eye on the rhinoceros population in large nature reserves in South Africa and identify cases of poaching for the sake of capturing rhino horns that fetch high prices. The usual way to do this with a group of drones is to control each drone with a separate laptop. But that’s not a scalable solution. Winn looked into what it would take to watch rhinos with multiple drones from a single laptop, although managers of the reserves ultimately went with big military-grade drones instead of lower-cost commercial ones. But at least he got a taste for what would be necessary to turn the drone-management idea into a business.

Since then Winn and his colleagues have been cooking up software that goes beyond requiring one or more people to manage one drone at a time on one computer — which in itself valuable.

“If you need three people on the ground to manage one drone in the sky, it’s very expensive, and it’s going to limit the usage,” Winn said.

Now the company is figuring out how to ensure each drone flies in accordance with the laws in place in every jurisdiction it passes over. And because those laws are changing all the time, maintaining compliance won’t be easy.

Currently, Winn said, the company is testing the software with its own planes. Looking ahead, he is thinking about concepts like using sensors to check if solar arrays need maintenance and checking farmland to see where photosynthesis is and isn’t happening. That could make DroneDeploy significantly more valuable than other controlled flying objects, like robotic bees.

While the Federal Aviation Administration is developing policies for flying drones for commercial purposes in the United States, DroneDeploy is looking internationally. “In Canada, you can run commercial drone activities,” he said. “In Australia, you can run commercial drone activities, but you need a pilot’s license to fly the drones. Control systems are entirely different. And we’re actually starting off with some pilots in Africa, because there are no specific drone laws, and you can deal directly with the government … to see if you can get things done. For us three South Africans, it’s more natural for us to do that for other people.”

Winn sees cloud computing as being a terrific enabler of drone-management software, particularly because of access to “virtually unlimited resources” that can enable analysis of data in real time and movement of real devices in response. Taking advantage of the public cloud’s scale-out capabilities can help the company support big customers, and that could prove useful as the company looks to make sure other drone-management companies, such as DreamHammer, don’t absorb all the business.

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