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SEND IN THE DRONES

Portland firm's software makes it easier for drone operators to comply with paperwork


COURTESY JONATHAN NATIUK FOR SKYWARD - Staff from Skywards flight ops team test a custom built DJI S1000 at the Nevada Test and Training Range in February 2015. The vertical, black cyclinder is a parachute. When asked what she would compare her company’s software to, Mariah Scott, chief operating officer at Skyward, promptly says, “QuickBooks.”

As in, Intuit’s pay-by-the-month accounting software, beloved of so many businesses for its ability to straighten out the tangle of revenue and expenses.

Her colleague Marcos Osorno, the Chief technical Officer, answers TurboTax, a sort of “Tax Filing for Dummies” in computer form.

You don’t normally associate the exciting world of aviation with spreadsheets and pop-up questionnaires, but Portland’s Skyward is determined to fill a niche in the “global aerial robotics network” at the “nexus of aviation and computer science,” as Scott puts it.

Skyward focuses on commercial drone operators. This includes those who fly unarmed, multi-rotor drones to see the health of farmers’ fields; fire and rescue services who need to assess hotspots and missing people; oil and gas companies with rigs at sea to inspect; or the linemen who have hundreds of transmission and cell phone towers to upkeep. They also field calls from realtors who want to get a money shot of that high margin mansion for their website, and wedding photographers looking for a new angle on the happy couple.

People flying “Unmanned Aerial Systems” or drones for profit must get a Section 333 exemption from the FAA. These used to be limited to closed set filming, but in April 2015 the drip turned into a trickle, with the FAA issued 166 new approvals, for more than just movie companies.

COURTESY JONATHAN NATIUK FOR SKYWARD - Skyward staff test a DJI Inspire 1 drone in their high celinged office on SW Naito Parkway. (L-R) Nick Wayne, Travis Widner, Andrew McCollough and CEO Jonathan Evans. Flying a drone commercially requires a lot of paperwork, such as filing flight plans, proving you’re the legal owner of the aircraft, showing that it has been maintained.

Hobbyists don’t need a permit but must obey rules such as not flying over people, staying below 400 feet and at least five miles away from an airport.

Skyward tries to help drone operators get legal and stay flying safely. One customer is Sky-Futures, which inspects oil and gas exploration equipment (skyward.io/sky-futures-section-333/)

The Skyward Systems software went into invite-only Beta testing in March. After four weeks it was capped at 400 customers — such was the surprising demand.

It offers three main things:

n A digital logbook to store required records and easily generate reports. No wine grape cultivator wants to get shut down in September for spraying from an unregistered drone.

n A real-time air chart. Like a cell phone coverage map in reverse, this shows where you can’t fly. There are temporary exclusions on Duck and Beaver football game days, and for the last Superbowl, most of Phoenix was a no-fly area. That clever promotional stunt for an energy drink could get you into hot water.

n Fleet and Personnel Management, which tracks who’s who and who fixed what. It also assigns unique IDs to drones to keep them organized. The aviation insurance industry is trying to adapt. It is used to insuring large, expensive assets. This is more like trying to track millions of mopeds.

You might think if drones can stream video they can also send all this data back to some sort of central server in real time, but they can’t. Much of it has to be logged by hand. Aviation still relies on a lot of paper and pencil flight plans, as though not much has changed since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French mail pilot and writer (“The Little Prince”) plied the desert skies, writing charts and poetry as he went.

The challenge for Skyward is to get everything in one place, in close to real time, so a drone operator could pull out their phone or tablet if challenged and prove their operation is legal.

Skyward is using the $4 million it raised to expand from 11 staff to 27, mainly hiring new software engineers. They don’t need aviation experience, but they do need technical backgrounds such as computer science, computer engineering, aerospace engineering or developing software for medical devices or other regulated industries.

According to CTO Osorno, the sort of tasks they will have some interesting challenges.

“Say we get a notification from the FAA about a temporary flight restriction. They have to create a complicated end-to-end piece of software that finds the information, puts it in the geospatial database, checks it, automatically publishes it to our server, and exposes it to the customer as a very simple rule.”

COURTESY JONATHAN NATIUK FOR SKYWARD - Mariah Scott, Chief Operating Officer at Skyward, compares the company's software to QuickBooks, in that it makes complicated record-keeping and FAA complicance much easier. The regulators want to know how heavy and how fast every drone is, and how much kinetic energy it can it generate.

“We can answer in software,” he says.

Then again on the front end, they need to take this complex information and give it a nice, easy interface.

“So rather than give you the 1040-form, we give you the TurboTax simplified view of it. We make that difficult, tedious stuff as simple as possible.”

He figures they can tap into the Intel-Nike axis of engineering talent, as well as the local startup scene and the many people who want to move to Portland.

Showing some STEM swagger, Osorno introduces his colleague Eric Ringer, a cofounder who left the company but is now back as technical Assistant to the CTO.

“Today is Eric’s negative first day — he starts tomorrow, heading to NASA’s Ames Research Center. He came in early because he’s a go-getter and he wants to make sure we have a plan.”

“It’s time for a mechanical engineer with an MBA to come back,” says Ringer with a smile.

Ringer and Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans met in the MBA program at the University of Oregon (Evans dropped out.) But it’s not like they will be lacking in management expertise now that investments are rolling in.

Amongst them are David Famolari of Verizon Ventures and Ari Newman of Techstars Ventures, who will be observers on Skyward’s board of directors.

“Drones today are like handsets with no network infrastructure,” said Famolari in a release. “Just as Verizon provides the critical infrastructure necessary to power mobile networking at scale, Skyward will provide the critical infrastructure needed to power the safe, compliant operation of commercial drones.”

Famolari’s job is to find hot new companies, give them money and make sure they don’t blow it. He says CEO Evans opened his eyes to the transformational powers of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. “I read one of his blog posts then found him on Angel List,” he told the Tribune.

“I had been thinking about drones, it was supercool to see these flying robots, but the breadth of application for so many industries was amazing. The first wave of value is in collecting bits: photos, videos etc. The second wave is in moving atoms: delivering packages.” He cites Verizon’s Powerful Answers Award, which included Matternet, a company that does vaccine delivery in remote areas and after disasters.

COURTESY JONATHAN NATIUK FOR SKYWARD - Skyward's laid back office has a couple of regular dogs, here (left) Zavvi in the arms of Dana Maher and Gracie with Nick Wayne. “We can provide access to Verizon assets, such as nation’s most reliable LTE network,” he says. “Verizon Ventures has a dual mandate. One is to get some degree of financial return, be good stewards of the capital. The second is a strategic return, to gain insight on new markets and help a new company.” Some kind of connection to Verizon’s cell network would probably be part of that strategy.

Ari Newman of Techstars Ventures lives in Boulder, Colo., and pilots a DJI Phantom 2. Like someone waiting for the next iPhone, he’s excited about the coming Phantom 3 with its 4k camera, and about the 3DRobotics Solo. Newman heard about Skyward through his partner Chris DeVore who runs Techstars Seattle.

“It was clear there was going to be a need for management layers,” in the commercial drone industry, says Newman. “And we like infrastructure companies, stuff in the plumbing with a critical value. I’d like to see Skyward own as much of that value chain as possible.”

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