By Leo Mirani
Drones have a terrible reputation, mostly because they have become a byword for death and destruction. But drones can be used for nonlethal means as well, such as this project to protect rhinos from poachers in India.
Many expect those nonlethal uses to spread—but Google’s venture-capital arm believes it more than most (even if Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, might disagree). Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture firms, and Google Ventures are investing $10.7 million in Airware, a Californian startup that develops operating systems for commercial drones. Airware’s software is already being used in drones flying over Kenya’s Ol Pejeta game reserve.
There are plenty of other applications. Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz who will sit on Airware’s board, envisions the use of drones for “precision farming,” which involves collecting data to help farmers water their crops, reducing the amount of water used and raising yields. Commercial drones are not yet legal in the United States, but the Federal Aviation Administration is drawing up plans to allow them by 2015.
The man behind Airware is Jonathan Downey, who built drones at Boeing before starting his own company in 2011. Airware already had 20 customers in nearly a dozen countries and expects to bring in revenues of $4 million this year. With a new era of ubiquitous drones on the way, the company is flying some very friendly skies.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece didn’t make clear that Google’s investment in Airware was done through its venture-capital arm, Google Ventures, and that the $10.7 million was the total sum, not Google Ventures’ share.