by Lora Kolodny
Lower airspace isn’t crowded with drones quite yet. But as drones become more pervasive, a startup called AirMap is building software and systems to help drone operators fly only where it’s safe and legal to do so.
The task will prove completely different from that of managing airliners as we do today, says AirMap CEO and cofounder Ben Marcus who is also serving as the co-chair for the FAA’s Industry Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team. “There are about 10,000 airplane flights happening at once on any given day. Human beings are able to manage all the traffic. But that won’t scale to manage millions of drones and billions of flights.” There are already an estimated 100,000 drone flights taking place per day.
Additionally, drones are becoming more and more autonomous. When they are technologically and legally able to fly without a human pilot monitoring them at every moment, AirMap wants to be able to feed them information about the safest routes to fly, taking into consideration not just static rules, terrain and obstacles, but shifting traffic conditions, weather, temporary flight restrictions and more.
The company offers an app directly to drone users that can help them plan a safe flight. But more importantly, AirMap works with drone makers, regulators and airports who use the startup’s systems to understand where drones are flying, and to ping them or geofence and bar them from flying where it’s not safe for them to be. Marcus said 80% of the worlds’ drones are using AirMap today for geofencing and to alert operators of airspace conditions. Drone makers who have integrated AirMap’s technology into their products include Yuneec, a new investor in AirMap, industry leaders DJI, Intel, AeryonLabs and others.
Today, AirMap announced that it has raised $26 million in a Series B round of venture funding led by Microsoft Ventures to build out its airspace and air traffic management platforms. Microsoft was joined by other strategic backers from across the drone industry including: Airbus Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, Rakuten, Sony, and Yuneec. AirMap’s earlier backers, General Catalyst and Lux Capital, also participated.
AirMap intends to use the funding to open new offices and further develop its airspace management and air traffic management systems, and to open new offices around the world. With headquarters remaining in Santa Monica, AirMap is planning specifically to open an office in Berlin, and another offices at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Airbus Ventures CEO Thomas d’Halluin said, “There’s so much congestion on roads, and the world population is growing. The organization of airspace will define the future of mobility and help solve that problem of congestion. But you cannot fly people and things without safety first. The drone industry started out with people flying their toys in their own little corner. What AirMap introduces is a flow of accurate information that lets them see and communicate about critical issues so they can fly wherever they need to. They can know don’t fly this area, you’re not the priority here please move aside, or you’re good here, fly safely.”
He said investors expect AirMap to use its funding to make its systems better-known to all players in and around the drone industry. “The next stage is about showing the world we will be safer if we deploy AirMap technology, and work together to share information and regulate all these new flying objects in lower airspace.”