Microsoft bets on autonomous drones to take flight | Crain's Seattle

Microsoft bets on autonomous drones to take flight

A device UI mockup demonstrating AirMap’s airspace data. |  Photo courtesy of AirMap.

Microsoft sees a future in autonomous drones that can communicate with each another as they fly.

As such, the software giant’s investment arm, Microsoft Ventures, recently led a $26 million Series B funding round for AirSpace, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based airspace management startup focused on drones.  Investment vehicles for Qualcomm, Rakuten, Sony and Yuneec also took part in this round.

The latest funding brings AirMap's airspace management platform and unmanned traffic management (UTM) solutions to new markets worldwide, as AirMap opens offices in Berlin, Germany and at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

"The strategic partners participating in our Series B financing reflect the diversity of the drone ecosystem and the potential of drones to benefit every sector of our economy," says AirMap CEO Ben Marcus. "Very soon, millions of drones will fly billions of flights. This is a future that depends on safe, autonomous drone operations at scale.”

Filling in-flight needs

The AirMap platform powers the vast majority of the world's drones, providing the industry's most comprehensive, reliable, and real-time airspace information and services. Millions of drones and hundreds of drone manufacturers and developers rely on the platform to access and share the data they need to fly safely in low-altitude airspace. AirMap's data and services are embedded into drones, ground control stations, and flight apps by top drone makers such as DJI, Intel, senseFly, 3DR, and Aeryon Labs – expanding the reach of AirMap's technology and solutions throughout the entire drone ecosystem.

AirMap has also emerged as a leader in worldwide efforts to build technologies for UTM, the regulatory and technological framework that will facilitate data exchange and air traffic control for drones, and eventually, flying cars. More than 125 airports use AirMap's airspace management dashboard to open surrounding airspace to drones, view past and current drone flights, accept digital flight notices, and communicate with drone operators.

"AirMap is a leader in low-altitude airspace management, and will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the drone industry," said Nagraj Kashyap, corporate vice president for Microsoft Ventures. "We're excited to support their growth and, by extension, the growth of commercial and recreational applications for both piloted and autonomous drones. We believe that by investing in companies like AirMap, Microsoft's resources, platforms and AI technologies can help fuel the future of the drone ecosystem."

Although Microsoft does not build drones, the company could eventually benefit by providing the cloud-computing infrastructure that helps startups like AirMap deliver their software services to customers.

This investment marks the first time Microsoft’s VC arm has invested in a drone startup since the unit launched in May 2016.  

April 10, 2017 - 9:32pm