Friday 19 January 2018

Send in the drones: why Ireland will soon be at the heart of new frontier

A new Irish startup has the potential to transform the global drone industry and put Ireland at the centre of its development map. Adrian Weckler talks to former Hailo founder Jay Bregman about making the skies safer for unmanned aircraft

Ex-Hailo mastermind Jay Bregman, head of the Verifly startup
Ex-Hailo mastermind Jay Bregman, head of the Verifly startup

Is Ireland to be the centre of a new drone economy? This week, the co-founder of the runaway taxi-app Hailo, Jay Bregman, unveiled the latest stage in his bid to bring drones to the next stage of development. And much of it revolves around Ireland.

His new startup, Verifly, has just closed a €2m round of funding which will see it start hiring engineers in Ireland shortly. But while the initial sum of cash is modest compared to other startup rounds of late (including Dublin-based Movidius's €38m cash injection received on Tuesday), it is the scale and ambition of what Verifly is setting out to do that sets it apart.

Bregman wants to regulate all of the worlds' drones. And he's come up with a way of doing it.

Verifly aims to set a new safety framework for aerial drones that would plug in drone manufacturers, aviation authorities, drone pilots and others interested in the operation of drones. It would see a geospatial framework set up where drones would automatically know of restricted air zones, traffic overcapacity, security limitations and a whole host of other programmable directions.

Big businesses and regulators are crying out for such a service.

Last week, the US Federal Aviation Authority granted Amazon permission to begin testing drone deliveries of parcels and goods. The online retail giant wants to create a new service called 'Amazon Prime' that would see small packages delivered to householders via unmanned drone delivery. In Asia, online retail giant Alibaba wants to use drones for the same purpose.

Insurance giants such as AIG want to start using drones for different reasons, such as to photograph and document insured property.

And there are dozens more industries clamping at the bit to start using drones productively. Agriculture, mining and entertainment industries can all see huge efficiencies from the deployment of drones. And that's before civil authorities get involved.

But right now, getting a licence to fly a drone is almost impossible. Because of the lack of technical discipline on drones in the sky, regulatory bodies such as Ireland's Aviation Authority have felt that they have no option but to issue blanket bans in urban areas. Where licences are granted, they are extremely limited and are issued in very restricted circumstances.

Verifly's intervention promises to make it much easier for everyone involved.

"The basic idea is that we are able to put together a vast global geospatial database consisting of all sorts of data from zero to 500 feet in altitude," said Bregman. "And then we're able to categorise all of the rules in different countries and cities. And we can put these all together to deliver that to the drone before each flight end even during the flight. In this way, you would see guardrails in place when the drone is flying. You could view us as glorified training wheels system."

If recent events are anything to go by, the drone sector needs such as system badly. With around 1m consumer drones currently in the skies around the world, crashes and near-misses are becoming more common.

London's Heathrow Airport has reported several near-misses between planes and drones flying too close to its runways. Last month, the US White House saw a drone crash into its lawn. And with more affordable models now in the market, privacy issues are becoming a concern with camera-loaded drone models.

"The whole point is that we view our mission to help people who are new to this industry to fly well," said Bregman. "This will allow people to fly with confidence and make the consumer market a more viable market. And there's a separate commercial market too, where we can provide tools for commercial users and focus more on the ability to have a trusted third party record flight details such as anything that goes wrong."

The calibre of the financial backers that Bregman has assembled for Verifly speaks to the interest in the nascent drone market.

They include Declan Ryan, son of the late Ryanair founder Tony Ryan. Ryan manages Irelandia Aviation, a heavyweight outfit that picks its investments carefully.

Private investors include Robin Klein, who is also a partner in the venture capital firm Index Ventures. The founder of Virgin Mobile USA, Amol Sarva, has also invested in the startup as has Serkan Piantino, Facebook's site director in New York.

Bregman also attracted, as co-founder, a serious ecommerce player in the shape of Eugene Hertz. Hertz sold to Amazon for $540m several years ago. Bregman has hired Hailo's general manager for Europe, Colm O'Cuilleanain, as the venture's lead presence in Ireland. O'Cuilleanain's role includes developing commercial models for the new startup as well as engaging with regulatory bodies here and abroad.

"This is unlike Hailo and is more of a global play from the outset," said Bregman. "We foresee developing technology here that works with major manufacturers and that they sell globally. We have plans to put in lots of infrastructure here to support that including all of the back end systems and support. Ireland is easily the best place for us to do this because of the ecosystem already here, including people who speak every language. Ireland has been awesome."

To this end, Bregman says that the startup will begin hiring engineers in Ireland imminently. And the startup has already started in Ireland to develop the technology that will power the new system.

"We have a university professor at a top irish university working with some of former students who are all geospatial experts," said Bregman. "All they do is crunch data. And they're drone geeks."

Regulators, he says, have been welcoming.

"The regulators we've talked to, including here in Ireland, are welcoming us with open arms," said Bregman. "We thought it might be the most difficult part of our work. But it's clear that they would love to have a reliable system in place so that they could consider drones again."

And police authorities, who might naturally lean toward an interest in drone technology, have been equally keen.

"They are absolutely pleased that somebody is looking at this," said Bregman. "This could help a lot with problems they have in enforcement."

The startup's potential customers will initially be drone manufacturers, which will be pitched Verifly's 'guardrail' technology database as a service.

"Manufacturers are definitely the largest identifiable customer group," he said.

"Not only are they the largest producers of drones, but they also have the largest amount of issues with the products being misused. So they're a natural fit for a compliance layer. We are initially very focused on the consumer market because that's where all the problems are happening and that's where we can make all the difference to privacy concerns."

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