By Jonathan Downey
Founder & CEO, Airware
Over the last decade, drone technology that was developed for the military has been getting smaller, lighter, and is being made at lower cost. Six years ago, when I was at Boeing, I saw that while there are only a few uses for military drones, commercial use of the technology could be almost limitless. But back then, every drone was running on different software with different user interfaces. I founded Airware with a simple, but audacious goal: remove all of the barriers preventing commercial enterprises from taking full advantage of aerial data. So we started building a platform for commercial drones.
The first barrier we took on was intimately familiar to me and Buddy, my then-classmate and now Airware’s CTO, since our days starting the UAV team at MIT. We found that if you wanted to build an autonomous drone, you had the choice of black-box control systems designed for the military, or spaghetti-code open source projects with no extensibility. So we designed modular avionics hardware which could be installed into just about any commercial drone and used to control the vehicle with a common set of commands. We shipped a beta version of our first product combining the hardware and autonomy software to Delta Drone in France in November of 2012.
The next barrier for enterprises was the control software on the market at the time. Everything available was built assuming the operators would be airplane pilots or aerospace engineers, and was not viable for operators without existing expertise. Enterprises would be slow to adopt drone technology if they had to hire or train a new, deeply specialized skillset to use them. So we built our own intuitive operator software, which was deployed for the first time at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in December of 2013, where we demonstrated the use of commercial drones for anti-poaching.
Next, we had to make sure that complying with the complex regulatory environment around commercial drones in the United States would be easy for companies that wanted to test the technology. It wouldn’t matter if a customer had a team of capable operators and a fleet of modular drones if they were never allowed to fly in the first place! So we started working with regulators to create standards that would enable safe use of drone technology by commercial enterprises in the National Airspace System.
Meanwhile, we built compliance features directly into our platform, adding geofences and permission-based user profiles so that enterprises could ensure only qualified operators could put drones in the air. We shipped it to drone manufacturers and service providers and began working directly with some enterprise end-users. This was still the early days, but we knew then we were on the right path.
When we secured customers, we secured feedback. We learned an enormous amount about the needs of large commercial drone operations. The sheer amount of aerial data that could be collected, and the data quality and consistency that businesses require, made for big challenges for our software team. We built the Airware Cloud to meet the storage, security, analysis and sharing needs of enterprise customers. After three years of continuous improvement, we launched the Aerial Information Platform in April 2015.
Over those initial years, we built the deepest and most comprehensive technology stack in the commercial drone industry. There is no other platform that enables the scale and ease of use that enterprises require. We had eliminated nearly every barrier to widespread commercial adoption of drone technology.
We realized in July 2015 that the last barrier we had to tackle was that despite the massive promise that drone technology has for commercial use, enterprises won’t wade through a fragmented market of point solutions for each possible use case. There would be too much procurement overhead, varied support structures and duplicative training required to make it worth the investment. What enterprises need is a complete solution built on a platform that enables them to address multiple applications.
The work we had done building the Aerial Information Platform meant we were best positioned to provide complete solutions to the enterprise. That realization came eight months ago. Since that time, we’ve been hard at work building the last bridge for the last gap between enterprises and commercial drone technology. So today, I get to announce that Airware is offering complete enterprise drone solutions.
How did we do it? We got the right people on the bus. We’ve managed to hire extremely talented people on this journey, and we plan to keep that bar high as we grow over the coming year. To that end, when we made the decision over the summer to offer enterprise solutions, I began looking for someone to add to our board of directors. I wanted someone who could bring enterprise solution sales experience, who knew how to build a great team, and who shared Airware’s customer-centric mentality. What I didn’t expect back then was to get arguably the best possible person for the role.
When John Chambers left his role as CEO of Cisco, he agreed to mentor me for four months. Those four months were packed with lessons, from high-level tech industry wisdom to the most subtle of insights, like tips for shaking the hand of an executive who’s just become a customer. At the end of those four months, I asked him to join the Airware Board of Directors. I’m happy to announce that John has joined Airware in his first board seat since stepping down as CEO of Cisco. I couldn’t imagine a better person to add to our leadership team as we bring commercial drone solutions to the enterprise.
One of the key industries we’re focusing on is insurance. Commercial drones will revolutionize the way insurance companies collect data from the physical world, and the industry has taken notice. State Farm, the most innovative insurance company in the country and the leader in auto, homeowner’s and life insurance, was the first in their industry to receive a Section 333 exemption from the FAA.
We met with State Farm’s innovation team three years ago to better understand what they needed in order to use commercial drones in their operations. They were interested in building on our Aerial Information Platform operating system, but didn’t want to deal with procuring and integrating the remaining elements necessary for their application. That conversation was one of the major factors that helped us realize we’d need to offer complete enterprise solutions to accelerate commercial drone adoption.
State Farm shares our vision for the future of commercial drones. So I’m very excited to be able to announce that State Farm is an Airware customer, and together we are conducting a limited deployment.
Over the last five years, the Airware team has worked incredibly hard. We’ve built the technology to enable a new era of innovation for enterprises in many industries. That’s why today we’re also announcing that we’ve secured a $30M Series C funding round, led by Next World Capital with Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and John Chambers participating. This round validates the work we’ve done so far and gives us the power to accomplish even greater things in the future.
Our hard work is clearly paying off, as I have more announcements today than my marketing team tells me should ever be crammed into one blog post. I’m so proud to be leading such a great team at Airware through these latest developments. Today’s milestones are a testament to the power of the great people I get to work with every day.