Last week at the DigitalLA’s fifth annual Silicon Beach Fest, AirMap CEO Ben Marcus sat down with Keith Kaplan, CEO and co-founder of the Tesla Foundation; Dan Burton, CEO and founder of DroneBase; and Van Espahbodi, co-founder of Starburst Accelerator to discuss the rise of the drone economy and why Southern California is the best place for it.
Los Angeles is a great place to start a drone company. While most of West L.A. is now known as Silicon Beach due to the rise of technology, media, and entertainment, the area has been a hub of innovation for the entire twentieth century. In 1917, Donald Douglas established his aircraft factory in Santa Monica, and in 1921, the first airplanes to fly around the world, took off at Santa Monica airport.
“This has always been a technology-oriented community,” Marcus noted. “But in those days it wasn’t about the cloud, it was about airplanes.”
“That’s why drones are so interesting,” Kaplan pointed out. “You control a drone from your iPhone.”
“And even more interesting is the many, many companies that could never afford aerial anything that can now access the airspace at a significantly lower price point with a drone,” Burton added. “Even small and medium-sized businesses, like realtors.”
The business applications for drones are endless, and many have yet to be thought up. For companies and entrepreneurs wondering where to start, Kaplan offered advice:
“If you’re flying something, you’re in aviation. So there’s a certain amount of education and language that you need to learn that is common practice for being an aviator.”
“On Monday, August 29th, the new federal aviation regulations that allows for commercial operations go into effect,” added Marcus. “You can start operating a drone commercially, after taking a written test, which will take a couple hours, and passing a TSA background check. So it’s really easy for people to get business drones.”
“It’s like the DMV,” Espahbodi quipped. “Basically, they are opening up an aviation DMV next week.”
But it’s not just freelancers and small businesses that are thinking seriously about drones.
“Detroit has been thinking about eco-transology systems now, for probably about 4 or 5 years,” said Kaplan. “Ford had their first hack-a-thon around application systems for eco-transology. We’re going to see drones in just about every type of application that you could imagine, including nano-technology because it’s really about IoT.”
This kind of internet-of-things data at scale is available to the drone ecosystem through AirMap’s platform.
“If you fast-forward 5 years to this world of autonomous, drones operating commonly, you can think about what sort of information that autonomous flying robot will need to be able to navigate safely and efficiently in the airspace,” said Marcus. “It starts with airspace constraints, like nearby controlled airspace, other manned aircraft, or wildfires. That’s one type of data that’s important. But also things like wind. A drone that has a maximum forward speed of 30 knots with 10 knots of wind makes a huge difference in the performance of flight, so micro-scale wind information becomes very important. Terrain and obstacles, traffic information related to other manned aircraft and other drones, and more is the kind of information that the machine needs to know how to navigate safely and efficiently through the airspace. AirMap is building the open platform for the exchange of this data so that everybody out there in the airspace can benefit from it.”
“It’s fun because when I hear of Silicon Beach I think of tech and entertainment like YouTube, SnapChat, and Vice. But when I hear drones, I’m thinking deep infrastructure, air navigation services. Why do you think more of the investors are trying to get behind this industry?” Espahbodi posed.
“In 2011, the market was just ice cold,” said Burton. “No one would even talk to you. And then when Amazon released their prototype marketing announcement, you started seeing more venture dollars being committed to the drone space. Venture money is looking at the infrastructure behind some of those capabilities. It’s been interesting to see it evolve.”
“The thing about L.A. that’s different than anywhere else, is that this is where people come to dream up anything and make it,” Kaplan closed.
Even drone companies.