How One Startup Thinks it Can Enable Cities to Use Drones

AirMap thinks cities can use unmanned aircraft for a lot more than they are.

by / February 28, 2017

In the future, cities could use drones for a lot. They could help survey infrastructure. They could alert utilities to trees growing into powerlines before they become a problem. They could deliver supplies in an emergency.

AirMap wants to help cities get there.

Drone technology is still fairly new, and cities haven’t quite adopted it en masse for government work just yet. But Greg McNeal, AirMap’s co-founder, thinks they will become a lot more widespread among city governments when two things happen: Municipalities start taking advantage of a certain federal drone operator certification program, and when drones become more capable of performing tasks autonomously.

“I think of a future where, let’s say [there’s] a large concert in a city and the city is trying to determine quickly whether they want to route traffic and have the police department change the cones to route traffic down First Street or Main Street,” McNeal said. “I can imagine a drone that flies up quickly and maps the traffic.”

AirMap’s primary customers aren’t government entities — the company serves drone operators, makers and software developers. But it is making a play for two types of government entity: airports and municipalities. Both have a lot of room for growth when it comes to drones.

On the airports side, AirMap claims it has more than 125 customers using its digital notice and awareness system. There are 4,814 public airports in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

On the cities side, McNeal said the company is in conversations with more than 100 municipalities about different ways to use its software. The use cases range from code enforcement to municipal marketing — at least one city, he said, has used drones to document hiking trails. The resulting photos served as data for the parks and recreation department and then were used to show people why the city was a good place to live.

“We have some of the biggest cities in the U.S. all the way down to some of the smallest city-manager type cities,” he said. “It’s a broad cross-section.”

One immediate role AirMap can fill is in transparency.

“As soon as the community hears, ‘Oh, my city is getting a drone,’ they can get concerned,” McNeal said.

So simply letting citizens know when and where a drone is flying, as well as for what purpose, can go a long way. Toward that end, AirMap is offering “microsites” where users can look up information about city drone flights. It can also provide notifications through the site to let people know when a drone has taken off.

A similar solution has worked for police departments using helicopters in the United Kingdom, McNeal said. When law enforcement offered citizens flight information, the inquiries about the helicopter program plummeted.

“People just wanted to know when it was flying and where,” he said.

McNeal said the company’s main software offerings can be useful for cities as well, since it was built for drone operators in general. AirMap makes tools allowing operators to route flights, including information about where drones aren’t allowed to fly and where other drone traffic is.

The main solution for airports, the digital noticing system, might also be useful for municipalities, though McNeal said he’s not aware of any using the software yet. The system alerts airports about planned drone flights, since airports are trying to keep drones out of their air spaces.

The National League of Cities has adopted a model ordinance for municipal drone regulation that calls on operators to notify the city whenever they use the craft — with exemptions.

AirMap is positioned to keep growing, as it just closed on a $26 million Series B fundraising round this week. McNeal said the company’s future plans are aimed at giving drone operators the tools they need to use the devices without direct control.

“That’s where we’ll be [focusing] our funding is enabling the autonomous drone,” he said.

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.