The FAA Shows Drone Companies a Way Forward

home-feature-01-1-w940h360Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration released its first “roadmap” for allowing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) access to U.S. national airspace beginning in 2015. The idea is to permit some drone activity while preserving enough flexibility for the FAA to adjust its rules and regulations if it needs to.

The step was a welcome one for entrepreneurs who are working on flying robots for the military — whose airspace isn’t regulated by the FAA — but who will soon be able to sell to a variety of commercial industries, including agriculture, construction, oil, gas, and mining.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now,” says Bilal Zuberi, a Palo Alto-based partner at Lux Capital, who sees a whole new industry about to emerge — with droids as just the starting point. He likens the moment to “when the satellites first went into space and data became available. You could do so much more with it than people imagined.”

Think maps that update in real-time or sophisticated applications that notify farmers when crops have been afflicted with specific diseases.

“Right now, people are thinking about just the hardware,” notes Zuberi, “but the hardware will lead to huge software opportunities downstream.”

CyPhy Works is one example of a startup that is building UAV hardware but betting on a future in software. The Boston-based company —  which announced $7 million in fresh funding this week led by Lux Capital — makes a 3-pound flying robot and a larger, 12-pound model that are both tethered to portable command stations but can float up to 500 feet off the ground and hang there for hours while beaming down high-definition video.

The company’s primary customer right now is the U.S. military, which is using the drones at combat outposts to monitor compounds and facilities, among other things. (The drones can accept a variety of payloads, from three-dimensional scanners to sensors for chemical detection.)

CyPhy founder Helen Greiner —  who earlier cofounded iRobot, which remains best known for its Roomba vacuum cleaners – sees a huge software opportunity coming when UAVs are permitted to share the skies with civilian aircraft.

“It’s a good time to be developing commercial applications, which we view as any opportunity to help manage a project using a bird’s eye view, whether it’s monitoring a bridge being built, a pit being dug, or a facility to see what people are doing,” she says.

Part of that process will involve convincing customers that they need satellites of flying cameras to replace their stationary cameras. But Greiner wants to be able to provide them with automatic detection and imagery analysis, too.

I ask Greiner about the privacy concerns that have been holding up the FAA. What about people buying UAVs to spy on their neighbors? “I share that [privacy] concern,” she says. “I don’t want one outside my house. But that’s not what we’re building here.”

What of the competition? After all, according to the FAA, there could be at least 7,500 commercial drones in use within five years.

Greiner suggests she isn’t concerned with what others are doing. She tells me about the top engineers she has hired from iRobot and other UAV companies. Grenier also talks about her passion for her work. “I’ve wanted to build robots since I was 11…it’s exciting stuff to be doing.”

Most crucially, she notes, no one is leading the pack at this early date. “It’s still very early in the game.”

Picture courtesy of CyPhy Works.

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