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News & Notes

The Year of Drone Software

Major companies including Microsoft and Verizon move into the world of unmanned traffic management

February 24, 2017

Despite some concerns early this year over the perceived lack of new drones at CES and the floundering of consumer drone manufacturers like Parrot and GoPro, the drone market appears to be successfully moving its interests to the commercial sphere — specifically, air traffic and operational management software.

In February alone, there have been multiple major announcements of investments, acquisitions, and partnerships between drone software producers and other companies. Here’s a breakdown of the recent moves, and what they might mean for the industry.
Verizon and Skyward

On Feb. 16, Verizon, the largest wireless communications service provider in the U.S., acquired Skyward, a popular drone operational management platform for commercial UAS pilots.

In a Verizon press release, the company explained that the acquisition of Skyward was a move to build Verizon’s Internet of Things (IoT) portfolio. Broadly speaking, the IoT is the digital networking of various devices — anything marketed as “smart” is designed to fit into the IoT. Lightbulbs, home assistants, rice cookers, thermostats, and now drones.

The thing is, for anything to work in the IoT, it has to be able to “communicate” with other devices within that network. Which makes the IoT a perfect market for a major communications company like Verizon.

Verizon announced its interest in drones and the IoT in October 2016, calling the project Airborne LTE Operations, or ALO. Yes, we’re getting into deep acronym territory here. If Verizon can successfully find a way for drones to communicate effectively using its 4G (or 5G!) LTE wireless network, multiple drones could potentially fly within shared airspace safely and efficiently.

The combination of ALO’s communication systems and Skyward’s flight management capabilities is likely a big step forward for drones’ IoT potential.

Skyward’s CEO, Jonathan Evans, explains in a press release: “Skyward's drone operations management platform combined with Verizon's network, reliability, scale, and expertise in delivering enterprise solutions will allow organizations to efficiently and safely scale drones across multiple divisions and hundreds of use cases."

Exactly how Verizon will pull this off is unclear at this point. But Mike Lanman, senior vice president of enterprise products and IoT at Verizon, seems hopeful about the acquisition.

“Last quarter, we announced our strategy to drive innovation and widespread adoption for in-flight wireless connectivity through our Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) initiative, a new service to simplify certification and connectivity of wireless drones. This acquisition is a natural progression of our core focus,” said Lanman in a press release.
Microsoft (among others) and AirMap

On Feb. 23, AirMap — a direct competitor of Skyward — announced it had completed a $26 million Series B round of funding. AirMap also unveiled what it called “an exciting group of new partners,” including Microsoft Ventures, Airbus Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, Rakuten, Sony, and Yuneec.

AirMap is already a popular flight management system, with millions of individual drone users and 125 airports using its services. “We’re looking forward to quickly bringing AirMap’s airspace management platform and solutions for cybersecurity, geofencing, Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management (UTM) and more to new markets worldwide,” AirMap said in a post on its website. UTM focuses heavily on communications between drones and their respective ground control stations — which is, in essence, just another application of the IoT.

While the $26 million is certainly worth noticing, breadth of partnering companies is also of note: four major (and diverse) technology/electronics companies and two aviation companies. All of this bodes well for the future of AirMap, but exactly where they go from here is uncertain.

That being said, it would be wise to keep an eye on AirMap after industry heavyweights like Microsoft, Airbus, and Yuneec put their names behind the company. Especially considering the fact that senseFly, maker of various aerial imaging drones, also nailed down a partnership with AirMap on Feb. 23. AirMap’s UTM capabilities will now be directly integrated into senseFly’s eMotion flight and data management software.

“By partnering with AirMap and adding industry-leading airspace intelligence to the mix, we are taking another big leap forwards and ensuring that our customers’ commercial drone operations are safer and more effective than ever," said senseFly CEO Jean-Christophe Zufferey in a press release.
Sierra Wireless and PrecisionHawk

Drone company PrecisionHawk also made an announcement on Feb. 23: It selected Canadian communications company Sierra Wireless as its partner to facilitate PrecisionHawk’s Low Altitude Traffic and Airspace Safety (LATAS) platform.

Sierra Wireless is primarily a designer and manufacturer of communication equipment, not a service provider like Verizon. PrecisionHawk will use Sierra’s AirPrime MC Series embedded modules to enable LTE connectivity — much like the Verizon ALO system — for LATAS.

LATAS is a big deal, having been used in both the FAA’s Pathfinder program and the NASA UTM program. So while this particular airspace management partnership may fly under the radar compared to the other aforementioned pairings, there’s certainly potential here.

According to PrecisionHawk’s press release, these Sierra Wireless modules are currently installed in drones flying in Australia and New Zealand and provide “real-time connectivity” to determine the drones’ position and send notifications to operators.

“We’re proud to be supplying the first cellular modules flying on drones to make the skies safer,” said Dan Schieler, senior vice president and general manager of OEM solutions at Sierra Wireless. “With near-ubiquitous coverage, cellular connectivity is key to innovative applications like PrecisionHawk’s LATAS being able to scale across the globe.”

While the partnerships are diverse, the end goal is the same: facilitate widespread, safe commercial drone operations. Flying cars, drone delivery, and UAV dirigibles may be just around the corner.
Featured image: Skyward