Drones have been staples in Christmas lists and amateur filmmaker’s toolsets for a handful of years now, but for businesses, the development and proliferation of drones has always had a specific endgame: defense, logistics, and surveillance. For that, an overhead system of controlling, managing and regulating drones has to be developed, and that’s exactly what Pramod Raheja, CEO of Airgility, has been tackling in the D.C. region.
ABERMAN: Tell me a bit about Airgility. What does it do?
RAHEJA: Sure. Airgility was formed to, in a very simple sense, to solve real world problems. So most of you are listening to this probably have seen drones flying around your neighborhood. You see the little quadcopters, you can buy one on Amazon pretty cheap. I have a few of them myself, but they don’t really do anything really mission specific. And what I mean by that is, for example, everybody thinks about what drones can do. We think about Amazon delivering packages, or delivering a pizza.
While those are all really great missions, there’s a lot of real world missions out there where we’re saving lives, or we’re protecting our borders, or what have you, using drones, and those are the problems that Airgility really focuses on. Specifically right now, search and rescue type of activity, security, as well as surveillance, and even getting into the middle of medical logistics space.
ABERMAN: Well it strikes me that autonomy generally, and drones in particular, have a lot of potential for connecting people and connecting society in a way that that frankly isn’t being done right now. I mean, do you equate drones in some ways with the change that happened when we went from horse drawn carriages to powered automobiles?
RAHEJA: Yeah. So we see, of course, everybody sees airplanes. We fly on airplanes, and there’s all kinds of different airplanes. What I see really is this sort of transformation that will happen. So we have cars on the highways, of course, every day. I just sat in traffic for a while. But if you think about the Jetsons, if you’re old enough, I do envision drones, all kinds of different drones, flying around with manned airplanes in the air traffic control system. That is happening. It’s probably a few years away from reality, to where we see drones daily flying around overhead. There’s a lot of issues that have to be tackled before we really see that, but I do envision it. It’s a when, versus an if.
ABERMAN: it took awhile for people to get comfortable with the idea of automobiles. You know, when you go back to the late 1800s, early 1900s, there was a lot of discomfort around the idea that cars could crash and kill people. You hear the same thing now, I think, with respect to drones. Particularly now that you saw recently that you know the Russian company Kalashnikov, instead of doing rifles, they’re doing they’re doing drones now. And so, drones are a, quote, national security threat. We see airports being closed because people are playing with drones near airports. But yet, in order for drones to really fulfill their potential, they are literally going to have to be dense over cities. So, how do you see that happening?
RAHEJA: Well I think it really boils down to, just like we have a national airspace system for airplanes, it boils down to an unmanned traffic management system. And having collision avoidance systems on the drones. Parachutes, probably, if you’re flying over people, so that if something happens that your drones just kind of float down, it’s not going to just crash down. So some kind of deployment system with that, and that’s already happening as well. And in addition to that, you know, a robust sort of communications network between the drones.
So you know, really, the identification of the drone. So on a manned airplane, every airplane is identified. You can see it in the sky, radar. The air traffic controllers can see the entire airspace system, and where every airplane is. I do think that, at some point, will have to happen for drones as well. So, everything will have an identification, as well as some sort of safety mechanism, like a parachute, to make sure that we’re not crashing over people.
ABERMAN: And in effect, we’re going to have to have a new way to regulate airspace, and move away from the concept of having lanes in the sky, which we have now with the FAA, to basically sort of structured mayhem. That’s what it sounds like.
RAHEJA: Yeah, I’d say that’s probably a good way to look at it. You know, there’ll probably be a little chaos before there’s a complete order. But absolutely, they will probably be lower altitude lanes in the sky, as well. So, kind of routes and corridors. So for example, if you’re talking about delivering something from point A to Point B, it may have to fly along a certain route in order to comply, and make sure it’s safe.
ABERMAN: Is the economic opportunity here sort of like the emergence of the automobile industry, where some people made cars, and other people made things, or had businesses supported? Is that what drones are going to mean for our economy?
RAHEJA: Absolutely. There’s an entire drone economy already taking place, from hardware to software to payload to sensors, to almost everything you can think of that you might be able to do with a flying machine. So just imagine the kind of things that happen on the ground, that can also happen in the air. That can happen at a lower cost, instead of using a helicopter for something, you might be using a drone. So, what goes on that drone is important in order to do the mission. So yes, there’s a whole sort of supporting economy. The analogy you could use also is an iPhone, and you have a whole app economy around the iPhone. There’s a whole sort of app economy around drones as well.
ABERMAN: So is Airgility a manufacturer of drones, or is it a service business that uses drones, or is it an app? How would you describe Airgility?
RAHEJA: So I would consider a=us a solutions provider. So what I mean by that is, yes, we are designing the hardware, specific software that goes into the drone to make sure that it flies, and communicates. But then we partner up with complementary companies in terms of the payload, and then deliver a solution. So payload might mean a sensor, a payload might mean carrying something such as an organ for transplant, and that would be the entire solution, but it would be you know, a set of companies that do that together. I also see, in some of these companies, a lot of M&A activities. Just like we say in the, again, if you’re old enough to remember the Internet of the late 90s, there was a lot of M&A, and that that’ll probably happen in the next four to five years with the drone economy as well.
ABERMAN: Sounds really interesting, and thanks for taking the time today to help unpack this. I must admit, the drones are one of those things that because, they’re so accessible, you can just buy one, a lot of people think that they’re just toys, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. That was Pramod Raheja, CEO of Airgility.