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Law-abiding drones? Hailo founder aims to make the idea fly

Jay Bregman believes that drone makers will pay for the tech needed to curtail issues with safety and privacy and to comply with the law. Call it regulatory engineering.

Jay Bregman, the former CEO of taxi-flagging startup Hailo, describes his new business at Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland.
Jay Bregman, the former CEO of taxi-flagging startup Hailo, describes his new business at Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Hardware and software engineers drive innovation in today's tech industry. But entrepreneur Jay Bregman plans to add regulatory engineers, too, for his new startup to help companies use drones without breaking the law.

Silicon Valley's libertarian ethos bristles at regulatory constraints, but Bregman believes the privacy and safety concerns about drones mean they're necessary. His as-yet-unnamed startup plans to bake those rules into drone control software so drone makers and operators can fly the robotic devices without fear.

Bregman, who only weeks ago left his job as chief executive of taxi-flagging startup Hailo, revealed the plans in an interview with CNET at the Web Summit conference here.

"Unlike previous generations of computing technology, robots have a very special capability where they can move in space. They can bump into each other or into people. They can take pictures where they shouldn't," Bregman said. "The only way to regulate this is through an independent third-party company that produces compliance modules."

Drones are a hot topic right now as services companies like SkyCatch, which offers 3D aerial scanning services for construction firms and industrial customers, join consumer drone makers like Parrot and DJI. These unmanned aircraft, typically maneuvered with four small rotors, can give people an eye in the sky. If Google, Amazon and startup Matternet get their way, burlier drones also will be used to deliver goods to our homes faster than delivery trucks.

A SkyCatch-built drone flies over the stage at Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland.
A SkyCatch-built drone flies over the stage at Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

One of the big problems with drone-focused businesses, though, is that they're currently illegal in the United States. Other countries are more liberal, and the US Federal Aviation Administration is working on looser regulations, but even then, drones will come with legal challenges. Collision and hardware failures pose safety risks, and even innocently aimed cameras on drones can encroach on privacy.

Bregman has some experience adapting companies to the the prevailing social order. His previous company, Hailo, adopts the smartphone-based hailing and payment mechanism of rival Uber but then uses licensed taxi cabs for actually transporting customers. In contrast, companies like Uber, Lyft and BlaBlaCar have often had fractious relationships with regulators and taxi medallion owners.

"One of my big interests has been regulation and policy and politics. I got a hell of a dose at Hailo negotiating with governments and medallion owners," Bregman said. "It taught me what you need to manage those interests. From what I've seen in Silicon Valley, nobody wants to know what the regulations are."

Regulating drones is hard, though. The FAA simply isn't equipped to handle tens of thousands of buzzing aircraft, Bregman said.

"It's a safety agency for regulating large commercial airliners," he said. The approach doesn't work with drones, where you can't find a drone's registration number or pinpoint who -- if anybody -- is piloting it. That's why he's hoping for technology that will "enforce those regulations via [software] code rather than enforced by new agency we'd have to create."

Bregman's company is also looking beyond drones to self-driving vehicles and other robotic technology, where the same issues of safety and regulation exist. But it's starting with drones. "That's the most urgent use case and what we know best," Bregman said.

There wasn't any problem with Hailo, in which Bregman remains the largest shareholder. But it was time to move on, he said.

"I left Hailo operationally months ago. I left because because I'm a builder. I build companies up to a certain point, mechanize them, hire the right people and let them do the job," Bregman said. When he discovered drones, "I got so seduced. I couldn't resist."