SkyWard, a Portland, Ore., startup that makes software for running networks of drones, is teaming with NASA to conduct demonstrations of aerial robotics in the U.S., Canada and Europe — hoping to prove the value of the technology to a historically wary public.
The project, dubbed “Urban Skyways,” is being announced this morning. It comes at a key moment in the evolution of the drone industry, as the FAA studies ways to lift restrictions on commercial drones, integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. airspace.
The Urban Skyways demonstrations aim to show what that future could look like. SkyWard calls Urban Skyways “the first end-to-end demonstration of a
commercial drone network operated with full regulatory and insurance compliance.”
The first demonstration will take place in Las Vegas, on a date not yet announced. Project organizers will work with the Las Vegas Fire Department to show how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be used to aid in emergency response.
“When you take this new technology and you put it in the hands of an expert like an incident commander in a fire department, they’re able to replace a clipboard with…an iPad with a live aerial perspective shot of your actual firefighters moving around the building,” Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans told GeekWire. “When you put the new tool in the hands of the experts they show you all the things they can do.”
The following demonstration will be held in Vancouver, B.C., where Urban SkyWays will show how drones can be used in commercial deliveries. After that, the team will take the operation across the Atlantic to London, to display infrastructure inspections using UAVs.
Finally, Urban SkyWays will return to SkyWard’s hometown of Portland to demonstrate several other uses for drones.
Special authorization for drone demos
The project will operate under special certificates from the FAA and authorities in Canada and the U.K. Partners on the Urban SkyWays project include 3DRobotics, Accuas, the cities of Las Vegas and Portland, DJI Innovations, Drone Deploy, NASA, Pix4D, and Sky-Futures.
Insurance for the flights will be underwritten by Global Aerospace, an aviation insurance company backed by companies including Berkshire Hathaway and Munich Re.
“The point of the demonstration project is to showcase what’s possible with the technology today and to paint a picture of what aerial robots in a city could do,” said SkyWard COO Mariah Scott, a WebMD and Intel vet. “So we’re going to show different uses so that we illustrate, in each city, a different vision of how aerial robots might come to life.”
SkyWard was recently invited to join the Small UAV Coalition, an organization launched by Amazon’s Prime Air. GoogleX, GoPro, 3DR, and several other industry leaders are involved in the coalition, whose primary role, according to Evans and Scott, is to lobby Washington to allow commercial drone flights in the next 12 to 18 months.
“We don’t want these to be a one-off spectacle,” said Evans. “We want to show how aerial robotics and an aerial robotics network (are) going to ultimately serve our infrastructure.”
How SkyWard took flight
SkyWard began pursuing a NASA partnership after learning about the organization’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management System (UTM), a program that maps highways in the sky.
The project and partnership with NASA mark significant milestones for the 2-year-old startup. Evans founded SkyWard in late 2012 after reading “Here Come the Drones,” a seminal piece by 3DRobotics CEO and DIY Drones founder Chris Anderson.
“I found in what Chris described was clearly the nexus of things I love,” said Evans, “the information science geek that’s sitting there reading Wired in a flight suit.”
Evans used his GI Bill and military experience to get SkyWard off the ground. After initial funding from angel investors, he brought in longtime friend Marcos Osorno as CTO.
“Marcos and I were best friends in the Army,” he said. “I spent the rest of my years basically being a pilot after nine years flying Black Hawks. He spent the rest of his career going deeper and deeper into his first passion of computer science and ultimately cyber security for the government.”
In the two years since Evans founded SkyWard, the company has raised two rounds of funding — a $135,000 angel round and $1.5 million in straight equity led by Seattle-based Voyager.
For more information about Urban SkyWays, check out Skyward’s video: