Detroit-based Airspace Link is helping build the digital infrastructure that will empower drones to transform how goods and services are delivered, both locally and over longer distances. The company’s AirHub platform aggregates data from the FAA, geo-location services, and local communities – more than 60 sources all told – to enable drone operators to map safe routes and meet FAA requirements to fly, even outside their own line of sight.
Airspace Link is now in more than 700 airports across the nation, and is working with local governments to gather information about routes outside FAA-controlled airspace. The company recently closed a $23 million series B round from both new and existing investors to pursue the ultimate goal of “one road” that all drone operators can use safely and efficiently.
We spoke to Casie Ocana, Airspace Link’s VP of Marketing, about the four-year-old company’s growth and its vision of drones supplementing virtually every form of mobility, from logistics to public safety.
In layman’s terms, can you describe how a drone operator would use AirHub to safely operate a drone flight?
Ocana: Pilots can use our free AirHub Launch application to apply for authorization if they’re in controlled airspace. They can also apply for further coordination if it’s needed. So when there’s a no-fly zone, they can actually coordinate directly with the FAA on our platform to say, ‘I’m just going to be doing it for an hour, and I’ll stay within 100 feet,’ and the FAA will say, ‘OK, great, that’s awesome(we approve for a one-time exception).’ [Airspace Link is one of the few FAA-approved UAS Service Suppliers of the Low Altitude Authorization & Notification Capability (LAANC) in the United States.]
For advanced flights, beyond visual line of sight, we have a product called AirHub Insights, and it’s very customizable, so it can be delivered via API directly integrated into workflows. So, if I’m an operator and the waiver says I can only fly 200 feet above ground level over this much population, and here are some parameters that will help reduce my risk, we can customize that and actually help them generate their own routing.
What are some of the most exciting use cases right now for Airlink’s technology in communities that have adopted it?
Ocana: We just did a program in Michigan where we enabled the first real-world delivery of medical cargo. That was so important because the way we’ve partnered with Michigan is to work to set up the infrastructure and the network. So we actually did the groundwork ahead of time and then went to MissionGo and we went to Beaumont Health and we said, ‘You guys actually have a really good use case, to use drones to reduce your exit time or your environmental impact.’
So when you think about medical delivery, if you have a lab and they’re waiting until noon to fill up the truck to take your blood samples to A to B, some of that might have been sitting there for a few hours and then that backs up at the next lab. With drones, you can send 10 at a time and it’s still more efficient from an environmental perspective and time perspective to do that versus waiting for 200 to be ready and sending it once in one truck. It’s better patient care, and you’re going to get your test results faster.
So are the main barriers to extending drone use technological, or is it this adoption by the public, or is it regulatory?
Ocana: It’s a combination of all of those. The nice part is that the hardware is here, the drones are capable of doing all of these things. So now it’s about doing the safety testing and compliance. Drones are actually held to the same standard as manned aviation – a 50-pound drone is going through the same safety testing as a Boeing. … So I think getting the public to understand that these are incredibly safe, there aren’t any crashes, and that the probability of crashing, especially into a human, based on these routes is very, very low.
But we also need the infrastructure. So that’s why Airspace Link was created. Right now, the system is “bring your own infrastructure.” So imagine if all the posts or all the logistics companies had to build their own roads. Not very efficient, right? The government puts in the roads and then the community and the businesses ride on them. And so what we’re doing is essentially being the neutral middle man and tying that infrastructure together for them to be able to come in and start flying versus coming in and setting up their own. They need ground sensors, they need a significant amount of both physical and digital infrastructure. … For a lot of businesses, this lowers that barrier and they can just come set up and fly versus having to do all that work themselves.
How has being based in the Detroit area helped Airspace Link grow since it was founded in 2018?
Ocana: It’s been fantastic. Our founder [Michael Healander] actually was in California for a long time, and had lived in a couple other places as well. And he wanted to come back here to start, since Detroit is the mobility capital of the world. So we’ve seen a lot of engagement on the government side and on the business side, on getting this set up and keeping Detroit as the home of mobility in the future. We see this as the next dimension of mobility, especially given that drones will be complementary to other forms of mobility. Since we started, our funding has actually come from both coasts. So being here hasn’t really hindered us from taking advantage of broader startup ecosystems, but it has helped us with getting started easier and narrowing our focus and being supported in that overall mobility ecosystem.