Sky Guide

AirMap Charts the Way for Drones

When it comes to navigation for cars and truck fleets, Google, Here and TomTom (with its Tele Atlas subsidiary) provide the mapping and congestion data to guide vehicles from one place to another. For drones, things are different.

In the skies, a company called AirMap is developing a navigation ecosystem for the vast majority of unmanned aerial vehicles and is gaining a foothold as the leading provider of software used to steer drones from place to place.

The company from California recently won $26 million in a funding round led by Microsoft Ventures. Others investors include Airbus Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, Sony, Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, and Chinese drone manufacturer Yuneec.

AirMap enables drone pilots to stay aware of flight conditions and local and national airspace rules. The company offers a mobile app that allows users to create flight plans for their drones. But more importantly, AirMap works directly with drone makers, regulators and airports, which use the start-up’s systems to stay informed about drone locations. The company also enables authorities to place geofences around specific areas and bar drones from flying when warranted.

Drone makers that have integrated AirMap’s technology into their products include Yuneec as well as industry leaders DJI, Intel, senseFly (a business unit of Parrot) and Canadian drone developer Aeryon Labs. AirMap is also one of several companies and universities working with NASA on a new air traffic control system for drones.

Recent years have seen a surge in drone usage, partly attributable to a recent ruling by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which ushered in new regulations to bring simplicity to the growing drone industry. The new rules are aimed at “non-hobbyist” unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, covering many drones used by businesses. Recent estimates suggest that opening US airspace to these vehicles could generate more than $82 billion for the country’s economy over the next decade.

As drones become more autonomous, AirMap wants to provide information about the safest routes, considering not just static rules, terrain and obstacles, but also shifts in traffic conditions, weather patterns and temporary flight restrictions.

Improved air traffic management systems that can accommodate drones will become even more significant as drones gain popularity. Already the volumes are tilted toward unmanned aerial vehicles by some metrics. For example, there are more than 20,000 commercial flights managed by human air traffic controllers each day in the US alone. In comparison, almost 100,000 drone flights take to the skies every day with little or no formal supervision. We expect AirMap’s software to bring oversight to this unregulated market thus helping to avoid dangerous situations in the sky.