Commercial Drones Are Coming, And Sooner Than You Think

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When Jeff Bezos talked about delivering your Amazon packages by drone last year on 60 minutes, it seemed like a grand publicity stunt designed to get his company some attention, but the fact is we are not that far away from seeing widespread use of commercial drones –including package delivery and much more.

Over the coming decade, drones will very likely become commonplace. Today, when we think of drones, we tend to think of the military variety, but in the coming years, we are going to see drones doing jobs where it’s too dangerous, too remote or too expensive for human-run aircraft to go. Think of use cases like search and rescue, oil and gas exploration, insurance and agriculture (and yes, package delivery).

But in order for drones to gain widespread commercial use it’s going to take more than just producing the machines themselves argues Airware CEO Jonathan Downey, who spoke last week at the EmTech Conference at MIT in Cambridge, MA. It’s going to take an operating system for Drones, and Downey’s company is trying to become the operating platform on top of which a commercial drone industry can be built.

Downey has a vision for this drone platform with three levels: operating-level functionality, back-end cloud processing services and even peripheral hardware.

He says his company will not create any drones themselves though because they want to be the neutral third party on top of which applications are built, not unlike Microsoft in the 1990s, which built Windows to run on all PCs, but never released a Microsoft-branded PC.

As he told me, “We don’t want to compete directly with our customers. Instead, we want to focus on the software, hardware and cloud services to build a network effect that benefits all manufacturers.”

And following Microsoft’s model, they are building an operating layer on top of which companies can build applications unique to drone management including fleet management, traffic management and more. And just as Microsoft sold mice and keyboards, Downey’s company has plans to sell peripheral hardware like cameras to run on the drones.

As for the cloud services, he believes that drone manufacturers will have unique needs that more generic big data processing platforms won’t be able to meet without more retrofitting and he wants companies to use his service to do that.

But at TechCrunch Disrupt last month (as well as at EmTech last week), Box CEO Aaron Levie spoke about the commercial potential of drone data in the enterprise, and of course he wants Box to be a part of that when it comes to storing, processing and working with the data these drones are collecting.

“Over the last year, we have recognized that in the enterprise the next sort of trillion objects or pieces of data or files that are going to be created are going to come from a kind of all new set of sensors and unmanned arial vehicles [drones] are going to be one of the more significant contributors…,” Levie explained at his TechCrunch Disrupt appearance.

It’s not clear Box would compete with Downey’s cloud services arm, but Downey said he could envision a company like Box linking to his platform through open APIs (or even vice versa).  Box is already working with a commercial drone company called Skycatch around data collection. After the drone collects the data and lands, it has to dump the data somewhere for processing –and that’s where Box comes in.

As drones become more popular –and Downey says there is more widespread use in Europe today, particularly France, there will be a need for increased regulation and management and he hopes his company can be involved in defining that overall management platform.

In fact, his company is working with regulators today and the ASTM standards committee to help define a set of rules and standards around commercial drone usage. His company also recently signed a deal with NASA to help develop what is essentially a drone traffic control system.

But it won’t be easy. There will surely be challenges ahead for this industry, not the least of which is shedding the image brought by military drone usage, and Airware itself will very likely face competitive challenges as the market heats up and other companies want to compete with it to become the industry platform of choice. But today, it has a head start in that regard and more than $40M in funding including its most recent $25M Series B round last July.

It’s worth noting there will very likely be social pushback as well, as individuals and countries debate the use of drones and what that means in terms of safety and privacy and that’s something the industry as a whole is going to have work through.

As for that package delivery that Bezos was touting last year on 60 Minutes? DHL is reportedly using drone aircraft to deliver packages to a remote island in Germany where it’s not always easy to get conventional transportation. It’s an experiment for now, but this could be just the edge of something that is very likely going to be much more commonplace in the future.

Drones may seem a bit like science fiction, but the fact is there was a lot of interest around robotics and drones last week at EmTech, and although we may be on the cutting edge today, that could change quickly as the technology and infrastructure to support commercial drones begins developing in earnest in the coming months and years.

Photo Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo