Coverage of the drone industry tends to focus on far future applications such as Amazon’s drone delivery plans, but there are companies delivering real results applying current drone technology to more quotidian applications. AirWorks is one of the companies leading the charge with its drone powered construction surveying tools.
AirWorks Moved Past the Drone Hype to Commercialize Construction Drone Use
AirWorks combines David Morczinek’s deep experience in the aerospace industry with six years at Airbus and Max Doubenski’s experience in the financial industry across roles in in private equity and investment banking. David worked on a project to hack together a drone capable of autonomously navigating based on GPS coordinates but quickly realized that FAA regulations would make any application of this autonomous flight infeasible. Meeting with Bill Aulet (head of the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT) helped them refocus on finding a problem to address using drones rather than trying to develop a new drone-enabled technology. Over the course of last summer’s delta v accelerator program at MIT, the AirWorks team made hundreds of calls across industries including solar, energy, insurance and construction.
“Drones are hyped technology but what is happening onsite is not what we see in TechCrunch.” – David Morczinek, Co-Founder of AirWorks
They zeroed in on construction and surveying in particular as the relative lack of technological progress in surveying methods and tools as well as the balkanized nature of surveyor companies created an enticing opening for AirWorks to transform the industry.
Aerial Imagery is the Perfect Tool to Supercharge Surveying
There are over forty thousand licensed surveyors in the US, most of whom still use technology relatively similar to that employed in the 1900’s—picture the tripods you often see around construction sites.
“Surveyors need three weeks field time to capture 100 hundred acres of data—using a drone, Airworks is out in two hours.” – David Morczinek, Co-Founder of AirWorks
These surveyors work independently from construction companies and are often booked out far in advance. Because of this high demand, AirWorks’ drone-enabled surveying is viewed as a welcome tool by surveyors rather than a threat to their work. This positioning helps Airworks sell their services as a compliment for surveyors rather than a replacement.
True Value Lies in the Data from Processing Aerial Imagery
The main focus for AirWorks is actually on the software side, developing tools to process the data within the drone’s aerial imagery.
“From the very beginning of the company, the mission has been: make aerial data useful and make sure it can be delivered in a way that allows decision makers to make better decisions from the aerial data.” – David Morczinek, Co-Founder of AirWorks
The collection of the data at a construction site is actually rather straightforward and improvements on the hardware side of drone technology will likely make this collection even more mundane in the future. Knowing this, AirWorks sees the true value in the image processing of the aerial imagery and the conversion of this data into useful outputs for surveyors. Their current product can deliver survey-grade accuracy with full line-detail in AutoCAD in days rather than the weeks it normally takes with current surveying methods and tools.
AirWorks Aerial Imagery with Full Line-Detail in AutoCAD
Another advantage of focusing on the software side is that it allows AirWorks to tackle larger construction projects as the software processing scales far more easily than the current manual methods.
Regulation a Clear Hurdle but Change is on the Horizon
Another critical problem AirWorks must grapple with is the impact of regulation on drone operation. Currently AirWorks is one of the only companies with FAA authorization for commercial drone operation in Boston and Cambridge, but the process for this operation is lengthy and onerous. There is hope on the horizon as the FAA is set to implement LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization Capability), a new regulation to help private industry drone operators receive authorization to pilot their drones. The regulation will switch to a dynamic real time approval for drone operation from the lengthy current nineteen step manual approval process. The regulation, which David describes as a “game-changer,” has rolled out in areas of the country already and will go into effect in the Northeast this August.
Commercial Drone Space Increasingly Competitive
In addition to significant regulation for drones the industrial drone space is an increasingly crowded one. Kespry and PrecisionHawk are well-funded competitors also operating in the industrial drone space. Their focus spans mining, insurance and energy applications in addition to construction, and focus substantial resources on the hardware side of the equation. Airworks’ strategy is to maintain focus on surveying within construction and to lean into processing in order to deliver aerial imagery a construction company can immediately put to use.
Hiring and Finalizing Go-to-Market Strategy Near-Term Focus
The next steps for AirWorks will be to continue to invest in building out their aerial imagery processing by hiring and remaining focused on the surveying market. On the hiring side they are focused on recruiting in the competitive computer vision and automation talent pools as well as CAD drafters to help build the domain knowledge required to develop their processing software. In addition, the company is finalizing its go-to-market strategy and will invest in a salesforce once this process is completed. Beyond these near term goals, AirWorks is committed to positioning its aerial intelligence product to ensure it is useful for parties outside of construction company applications including governments and city planners.