Google Ventures joins multi-million Airware drone brain investment

Google Ventures and others have invested $10.7m in a drone OS startup, Airware, aiming to create autonomous, unmanned aircraft which could be used by emergency services or in civil applications such as farming and mapping. The funding round, which sees Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz dip into their pockets, will support development of Airware's off-the-shelf autopilots for drones, which are intended to be far more cost-effective than traditional such systems.

Airware does not offer full drones, or indeed the majority of the hardware users would require to piece together an autonomous airborne craft. Instead, it has a range of three different autopilot systems – osFlexPilot, osFlexQuad, and osNanoPilot – intended for different types of flying machine: fixed-wing, helicopters, or multi-rotor 'coptors.

In addition to the flight control software, for actually piloting the craft, the three "brains" can also control different payloads. That might be a camera array for remotely monitoring infrastructure such as power cables, or for taking aerial photography for use in mapping applications; Airware has one existing client, for instance, using the autopilots to guide drones in monitoring rhino poaching across a wildlife conservancy in Kenya.

"Robotics has long been a field that overpromised and underdelivered," Andreessen Horowitz's Chris Dixon said of the investment. "We think drones are the most likely way to rectify that."

Pricing for the autopilots range from $3,900 to $8,500, depending on configuration and flexibility. They come preloaded with software for a broad range of craft, navigating through preset waypoints and from remotely-loaded routes, and with the skills to take off or land autonomously; in addition, they can control pan/tilt camera mounts. However, Airware also offers an open API to customize the setup to suit unique project requirements.

Drones have controversial in recent years, as the number of autonomous and remotely-controlled aircraft increase. Back in April, Google's own executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, called for greater regulation of civilian drones, warning that the potential use for terrorism or anti-civil-rights purposes could swiftly get out of hand.