For More Than War: Airware Demos Its Drone Platform By Protecting Rhinos From Poachers

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Airware wants to prove drones have plenty of uses beyond killing people. Today the unmanned aerial vehicle hardware/software/firmware startup detailed how it’s built and deployed special drones to thwart animal poachers in Kenya, Africa. The demo could build interest for the launch of Airware’s commercial drone platform later this year.

Airware was founded in 2010 and graduated from Y Combinator in March 2013 with the goal of bringing the drone revolution to a wide variety of businesses and other areas such as precision agriculture, land management, infrastructure inspection of powerlines or oil derricks, and search and rescue.

Airware builds drone hardware, software and firmware operating systems that control them, as well as their user interfaces. Businesses and organizations can then build apps and other functionality on top of Airware’s drone platform to perform their own specific purpose without having to create an end-to-end UAV system by themselves.

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In May 2013, Airware raised a big $10.7 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by Google VenturesRRE VenturesLemnos LabsPromus VenturesShasta Ventures, and Felicis Ventures — the biggest post-Demo Day round in Y Combinator history. It’s been using the money to bridge the gap between hardcore military UAV development, and the do-it-yourself drones and toy quadcopters that have recently become popular.

Later this year, Airware’s commercial drone platform will expand beyond beta testser and become broadly available. But first it needs to help change the world’s perception of what drones are for. “We want to educate  people on the very positive uses for drones”, Airware founder and CEO Jonathan Downey tells me.

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Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Air Prime certainly helped, but commercial drone use in heavily populated area is a still a ways off and will require strict regulation. Airware wants to show how drones can be used for good right now.

So in December, Airware sent a team to Kenya to work at Ol Pejeta, East Africa’s biggest black rhino sanctuary. There the worked the Ol Pejeta Conservancy to deploy a drone built specifically to monitor the sanctuary for intrusions by poachers using the drone’s on-board cameras. Airware writes that “The drone, equipped with Airware’s autopilot platform and control software, acts as both a deterrent and a surveillance tool, sending real-time digital video and thermal imaging feeds of animals – and poachers – to rangers on the ground using both fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras.” You can see the drones in action in the video clip below.

Covering so much ground on foot or even by car would be cumbersome, while using full sized planes or helicopters would be prohibitively expensive. But with Airware’s drones, Ol Pejeta rangers can use a simple interface to fly drones around the sanctuary and spot poachers day and night.

Downey says “I think the more people that see these [non-military uses for drones], the more comfortable they’ll be with someone coming to their house and doing a rooftop inspection using a small drone.” While it’s easy to imagine all the scary things that drones can do, it’s important to remember that few technologies are inherently bad. It’s about what we do with them. Sure, some inventors become masters of war.  But Airware wants to democratize drones to benefit mankind, not blow it up.