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Airware's OS for commercial drones takes flight

The startup showed off its platform at Y Combinator Demo Day and talked about lowering the barrier to entry for commercial and enterprise use of drones and UAVs.

Though the Air Force likely won't be an Airware customer any time soon, the startup hopes to attract commercial drone users with its new operating system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- While hobbyist use of drones is all the rage these days, there are few ways for commercial or enterprise customers to get unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air.

But that's what Airware, one of the startups in the winter 2013 Y Combinator class, showed off at Demo Day today.

The Newport Beach, Calif., company aims to give commercial companies an easy-to-use development platform that will get their purpose-built drones up and flying in no time. Airware's platform comprises both on-board hardware and software, founder Jonathan Downey said. It also features elements that all drones and UAVs need: inertial navigation systems, flight control algorithms, and ground station control software.

By taking care of these necessary elements, Airware hopes to free up its customers to work on their higher-level applications without getting bogged down in reinventing the wheel.

That means, Downey explained, that Airware's customers can use the company's development tools to design custom applications for specific uses, such as infrastructure inspections, search and rescue, or anti-poaching surveillance.

According to Downey, many of the company's customers make their own drones and then integrate Airware's technology. In some cases, Airware will suggest a drone maker to a customer that is uninterested or unable to build its own.

Downey said Airware's technology works on a wide range of UAV platforms, from helicopters to multi-rotor and fixed-wing aircraft. However, it is not meant for the hobbyist market.

Once in flight, Airware's system can communicate with the ground for up to 60 kilometers, so long as it remains in line of sight, using a dedicated radio frequency (RF) link.

Today, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is still determining rules that will govern control of small UAVs, Downey said. As a result, most of Airware's customers are international. But clearly the company hopes that it will be able to work with a wide range of American customers in the near future. Airware already has more than $200,000 in orders from 20 customers in 10 countries, and it is on pace to bring in $4 million in revenues this year, the company reports.