Despite all the hype and business investment, drones are mostly flown by hobbyists and the military these days, says Ken Stewart. But if he and other drone supporters have their way, the sky will eventually be dotted with unmanned aircraft delivering packages to consumers, transporting organs between hospitals, conducting search missions in remote areas, inspecting bridges and highways, and perhaps transporting people.
Making that vision real will require new systems for managing the increase in air traffic and making sure drones safely share the skies with airplanes, helicopters, and other aerial vehicles. A young venture launched by General Electric and led by Stewart aims to help. Today, Boston-based GE officially unveiled AiRXOS (pronounced air-os—the “x” is silent), a wholly owned subsidiary that will provide hardware, software, and services to the budding drone industry.
“We’re addressing the complexity of integrating unmanned vehicles into the national airspace,” says Stewart, AiRXOS general manager. “When you’re thinking about getting a package delivered to your home by drone, there are some things that need to be solved before we can get to that point.”
AiRXOS is making its official debut at a time when its parent company has been struggling and its future is uncertain. GE’s stock price has been cut in half over the past year, and new CEO John Flannery has raised the possibility of breaking up the business.
AiRXOS was formed in 2016 by GE’s aviation business and its corporate venture capital arm, GE Ventures, says Stewart, who has worked as a GE Ventures entrepreneur in residence, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before that, he was a sales executive at Federated Wireless, Iconectiv, and GridPoint.
Stewart declined to say how much GE has invested in the new drone venture, or how many people it’s hiring. AiRXOS is based in Boston, with some staff located in Grand Rapids, MI, where GE Aviation has operations, Stewart says. (He’s based in Washington, DC.) AiRXOS says it also plans to open an office in Syracuse, NY, where it’s collaborating with the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance on a drone testing and rating project.
AiRXOS is developing a sort of Waze or Google Maps for drone flights, Stewart says. Its software will enable drone operators to plan flight paths from a laptop, mobile device, or ground control station, helping to make sure the machine will avoid obstacles, other aircraft, inclement weather, and so on. In the future, the software will also enable users to request and receive authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to occupy that airspace, Stewart says.
The FAA and other government entities are still studying drone use and developing regulations and processes for permitting drone operations, Stewart says. For example, operators must receive waivers if they want to fly a drone beyond the pilot’s line of sight, over people, and at night, among other current restrictions.
“It’s difficult to get [requests] approved because the FAA hasn’t collected enough data to make a decision about whether something is safe or not,” Stewart argues.
AiRXOS is working with the FAA, NASA, and other government entities to help them develop standard criteria for advanced commercial drone operations, such as the types of sensors and communications equipment they should have, implementing backup GPS systems, pilot requirements, and so on, Stewart says. He says one of the services AiRXOS will offer is helping businesses and other organizations to craft applications for drone use that requires government approval.
Lastly, AiRXOS will supply drone equipment, including “intelligent avionics”—computing components that will be attached to drones and enable autonomous flight, Stewart says.
In a press release, AiRXOS says it has been selected by several programs to help develop “unmanned traffic management” systems and automated drone certification programs. Those partnerships include a U.S. Department of Transportation pilot program, through which AiRXOS will work with the city of San Diego, city of Memphis, TN, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to demonstrate drone capabilities and develop drone traffic management systems, AiRXOS says.
Stewart predicts that next year will be an important one for gathering drone flight data and gaining a better understanding of their potential uses. By 2020 or 2021, the industry will “really start ramping,” he says.
The proliferation of drones will likely start with monitoring farms and critical infrastructure like pipelines and oil refineries, Stewart says. Eventually, it should expand to more complex and riskier operations, such as delivering packages (on-demand burrito delivery by drone, anyone?), and potentially transporting people, he says. Stewart cautions that it will take much longer to develop the infrastructure and regulations for unmanned air taxis, not to mention the technology.
“This is really laying the groundwork for future aviation,” Stewart says of the work of AiRXOS and its partners. “There’s a lot of opportunity in many sectors.”