Airware: An operating system for drones

I’m excited to announce that Andreessen Horowitz, along with Google Ventures, is investing $10.7M in Airware, a startup that makes operating systems for flying robots, popularly known as drones.

Drones were first developed by the military. But as component prices drop and software becomes more sophisticated, drones are starting to be used in non-military applications.

One application is precision farming, which aims to decrease costs, increase yields, and reduce the environmental impact of farming. Farming accounts for about 70% of global water usage. Most experts think this is unsustainable. Using drones, farmers can inexpensively survey crops to better allocate water and fertilizer. Studies show this can raise food yields over 25% while decreasing water usage by 40%.

Other large markets are mapping, infrastructure inspection (e.g. pipelines and power lines), and civil applications (police, firefighters, and first responders). We expect many other uses to emerge over time. One of Airware’s early customers is a Kenyan wildlife conservancy that’s buying drones to prevent Rhino poaching.

Airware makes operating systems for low-cost, non-military drones. It’s a combination of hardware and software that’s designed to be customized by customers and third-party developers. Other companies make the actual drone body (the “airframe”), which can come in many forms such as helicopters, quadcopters, and fixed-wing airplanes.

The founder of Airware, Jonathan Downey, spent most of his life studying aviation and engineering. Like his parents and grandfather, he is a licensed, instrument-rated pilot. He studied computer science and electrical engineering at MIT, where he represented the university in drone-building competitions. He then built drones at Boeing, but left when he realized he could make low-cost drones on his own.

As investors, we try to back brilliant founders pursuing audacious ideas. Robotics has long been a field that overpromised and underdelivered. We think drones are the most likely way to rectify that, and Jonathan is the person to make it happen.

26 thoughts on “Airware: An operating system for drones

  1. This is very cool. I think the application to agriculture and infrastructure is going be very significant and it will have a global market (as you already alluded to with the Kenya example)

  2. Congrats on the investment, Chris – it will be interesting to see if the leading players will continue to be integrated hardware & software companies or if we will see a complete separation between hardware and software companies in this space.

  3. Baribal says:

    Why does a drone OS need to be developed at all? What’s wrong with using already existing OSes like Linux? Why should it not be possible to create applications that run equally well on a desktop computer as on a drone? Why should I not be able to use the not-at-all-small set of software I can work withalready to build drone control applications?

  4. Like this move a lot, and the investment in 3-D software as well. Nice to see folks looking out a few years ahead and using their blog instead of coordinated PR, too.

  5. Lucas Wiman says:

    I would guess that their “operating system” is based on Linux. Much like ROS (Robot Operating System) and Android (a smartphone “operating system”) are also based on Linux.

  6. Drone use can be amazing, given the uses. As Airware says on their site… used for “prevention of rhino poaching in Kenya, vaccine delivery to remote areas in Africa and Southeast Asia, skier search and rescue, and open air mining operations in France”. Is there a downside? I’ve seen some talk about privacy issues.

  7. Baribal says:

    “Based on” means in practice “don’t expect to see any actual similarities”. Android may be based on it, but that doen’t mean I can just install the packages that I’m using every day on my desktop.

  8. It is based on Linux, but avionics require a set of analog interfaces that don’t really exist anywhere else, and certain functions still need to be blackboxed; linux + these interfaces + certain black boxes = Airware.

  9. Baribal says:

    Analog interfaces, okay, that’s just a matter of adding kernel modules. However, what *needs* to be blackboxed? Current hobby drones work rather well without it.

  10. Yes to all of this.

    “Robotics has long been a field that overpromised and underdelivered” — Hopeful this is starting to change, esp. with news like this.

  11. Kenneth Metral says:

    Hey Chris,

    Sorry for posting this un-related comment, I was reading that you are getting into bitcoin and very interested in it. I had a couple questions for you regarding my bitcoin startup. Please contact me when you have some free time, my email is ken@coingig.com. Thanks!

  12. Baribal says:

    That’s pretty exactly one of those things that could benefit from data gathered at the application level and thus should not be blackboxed. Doing so, and thus probably making more fundamental flight controls unavailable too, would restrict any app to just flying the platform instead of improving flight performance itself.

  13. Bar86 says:

    I do not see the need in a new operating system. On the Cypress PSoC I have devloped an AHRS/FCS/NAV with analog, digital, coms servos ios without a single OS call. Look for NewByte miniAHRS. All of the developement envronment is free and well documented. The MCU costs 15$ with any io you could dream about.

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