Drones, or unmanned, aircraft are already used in military intelligence operations; Airware is betting that they will be big in commercial jobs as well and now has $10.7 million in Series A venture funding to help make that happen.
Founded in 2011, the Newport Beach, Calif. startup builds the autopilot or the “brains” that drive drones. One current Airware customer, Deltadrone in France already has drones conducting skier search-and-rescue and for open-air mining operations, said Airware CEO Jonathan Downey.
Downey, an MIT grad who knows about aircraft having spent a few years at Boeing, sees upcoming commercial applications including prevention of wildlife poaching and agriculture although to date, commercial use is limited until the FAA comes up with regulations on and requirements for their use. Congress has mandated that this be done by 2015.
Airware clearly thinks demand will be huge once the regs are in place. A survey by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) — admittedly a non-partial observer — projects that the manufacture and use of drones built in the U.S. could create 70,000 jobs in the first three years, adding $13.6 billion to the economy.
Potential competition for Airware could come from the big aerospace companies but so far, drones have had “only one customer and are only used for one purpose — military surveillance, ” Downey said in an interview. “We started this company because we think there will be a wide variety of applications on the commercial side and those drones will probably be flown by people who will not be as trained or skilled so the hardware and software have to be customized for various users.”
The company will furnish APIs to allow that customization of the autopilot which is an integrated bundle of sensors, computer and communications gear and software — thus also be adaptable for specific uses and power fixed-wing, helicopter or multi-rotor drones. “We provide the APIs to allow companies to customize the autopilot for their needs,” he said.
The initial applications will probably require that the person with responsibility of the drone stays within sight and in low-population areas, he said. Agriculture could be big. “We could provide imaging to determine which areas are over- or under-watered, what is the ideal time for harvesting, and what areas need pesticide,” he said. By letting farmers pinpoint where water or pesticides should be applied, drones could cut the use of both.
Downey said that the drones to be built will cost between $20,000 and $40,000.
Other applications could include the inspection of large buildings or power lines; mapping; and perhaps even sports or event photography. Hey, if a blimp can do it … Other companies propose the use of drones for news gathering. And, as GigaOM’s Amanda Alvarez reported recently, David Lester at U.C. Berkeley helped create a hack group to investigate the use of small drones for commercial purposes.
Prior to this round of funding, Airware which is a Y Combinator and Lemnos Labs graduate, netted about $3 million in seed money from First Round Capital, Firelake Capital, RRE Ventures, Shasta Ventures and Promus Ventures, brings total funding to date to $13.7 million