Profile: Airware

USA Today

USA Today

In the not too distant past, unmanned aircraft (drones) used to only exist as a science fiction concept. In recent years, the military further developed the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology in correlation to it's increasingly prevalent battlefield performances. Today, the concept of how drones are used in the Middle East isn't alien to people. Drone operators observe the battlefield or operation site from miles away by being able to fully control these robots in combat or supporting missions via remote interface. Despite the controversy of drone usage in warfare, there’s no doubt that this UAS technology is capable of reducing the life risks of pilots in dangerous missions and combat. In recent years, these multi-purpose machines are starting being used in non-combat settings. In the US, hobbyists, police officers, and businesses are harnessing this technology for their own benefit.

Located in San Francisco, CA, Airware produces drones for commercial purposes with contemporary hardware, flight cores, and operator software that provides business solutions for many industries that require multiple inspections of many large assets or environments. For example, internet service providers (ISP) may need to use drones to check their signal towers’ condition. Instead of climbing the towers, the operators may simply send their drones to fly around the towers to inspect, take photos, and relay the photos back to the inspector’s computer. This can help inspectors to find out the current condition and potentially dysfunctional parts of the towers in an easier fashion than before. 

The data being collected by the drones is sent to a secured form of cloud storage that requires permission to fully access. The collected data can create digital surface models (DSM), digital terrain models (DTM), point clouds, and other outputs for usage in geographic information systems (GIS). The cloud connected drones are able to assign and schedule flights, and control whoever has the access to the software and drone usage. It is also possible to customize the drone’s speed based on wind direction, altitude, autonomous landing/flying, camera control, and point of interests. Ultimately, the user may even program their own applications and plugins to satisfy their business needs. The surveying machines from the sci-fi film “Avatar” immediately come to mind.  

At the same time, insurances, utilities, waste management, agriculture, construction, and the mining companies could use this technology to inspect their large properties, environment, and work sites as well. Some insurance companies are starting to use drones to take photos of estate assets when evaluating their value. For utility companies, constant drone inspections can potentially save them millions in spotting possible leakage or finding out and conduct damage control as soon as possible. Farmers may use drones to schedule and plan the spreading of fertilizer, watering amongst their crops, as they had done with planes before. In addition, Airware has an “Airware CAT Dealer Program” for construction and mining companies; it integrates the UAS technology to safely secure operation sites, gain better visibility, and better insights in analytics and planning. Some of the drones may even help stack piles during construction.

In an interview with Wired, Downey mentioned how these drones can be used in non-commercial activities as well. One of his French clients utilized this technology on rescue missions in mountainous areas, while one of his Kenyan clients was used it for anti-poaching purposes; the protected animals were tagged with RFID tags while the drones aerially monitored them. 

The founder of Airware, Jonathan Downey, is an engineer, pilot, and entrepreneur. Downey graduated from MIT with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 2006. Coming from a family of pilots, he was interested in airplanes and engineering since young age. Before founding Airware, Downey worked as an engineer at Boeing and flew commercial planes over the Grand Canyon. In 2011, Downey found out that there was a large gap on the drone technology market; military drones were too inflexible and expensive while hobbyists drones were not safe or reliable enough for commercial tasks. Because of the dilemma, Downey’s team decided to create commercial drones with the ability to collect data from the physical world repetitively and quickly. With the capital from venture capitalists, the firm grew quickly and successfully from a small team of five people to a company of more than eighty.

In 2015, Downey joined the AUVSI Foundation (The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) and became one of its board members, while subsequently becoming a general partner of the Commercial Drone Fund. In Feb 2016, Downey and Buddy Michini's (CTO of Airware) patent “modular flight management system incorporating an autopilot” was issued.

As an early entry into the commercial drone market, Airware is one of the most well-known drone companies. According to the Drone Industry Insight, Airware ranked #8 among all global drone manufacturers.

In an interview with USA Today, Downey had mentioned how his startup’s history and inspection functioned before the integration of drones: Inspectors usually needed to climb up to a cell phone tower (or any tall tower) and take photos from its height. It was a dangerous job and caused a number of work-related injuries. With drones, inspectors only needed to learn how to pilot, and the process of collecting data to create maps grew easier. He even mentioned that within five years, drones gain more prevalence in daily lives and work, while in ten years, people may heavily depend on drone functionality. The difference may even mirror the GPS and its immediate superseding of the paper map.