With government agencies starting to ban or phase out Chinese-made drones, companies that are manufacturing them in other parts of the world, particularly America, are emerging with large-scale enterprise solutions. One that has made headlines recently, for many reasons, is Auterion – which is well-known in the drone industry as their largest open-source platform.
InterDrone had the opportunity to catch up with Auterion Government Solutions (GS) CEO, Dave Sharpin, to discuss recent developments, partnerships, plans for expansion, and their two new board members.
Congratulations on the two recent additions to Auterion’s board. We’ll get to that in a moment. Can you tell us more about your background?
The brief, short story on me is I spent the last 35 years of my career in aerospace and defense. Most of that time was with manned aircraft working with different companies along the way. In 2015 I was approached by AeroVironment (AV) to join their business and it was first real foray into unmanned systems. During that time, I ran the Tactical UAS Business Unit for them. I got a deep education in unmanned systems from the ground up working with customers both domestically and internationally. I decided to leave AV in 2019 and I had known the cofounders Kevin (Sartori) and Lorenz (Meier) from some work I did with them while at AV.
We were having a conversation about my departure from AV and they asked me if I wanted to start a couple of businesses in the U.S. I was excited about the work they were doing for the drone industry, plus its customers, and decided to go for it. I started Auterion Inc. which is a commercial business, that deals with the commercial market for drones. I also started Auterion Government Solutions and that is a very government-focused business. We have a number of contracts with the U.S. government.
The U.S. government, particularly the Department of Defense, has been banning or limiting the use of Chinese-made drones. Given the number of contracts you mentioned, what is your plan to get them all completely integrated with your services?
Our involvement in that for the government has been through the Blue sUAS program. We actually had one of the first contracts with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in 2018 to develop an open source-based ground control software system. That was our first foray into this world where DIU was trying to create and reinvigorate the drone industry here in the U.S.
We’ve been apart of that journey all along, with five contractors that are on Blue sUAS, by providing them our software as well as doing integrations with them along the way. At this point, we’re really starting to build an ecosystem where we’re promoting U.S. industry and keeping things open-source. We’re not investing ourselves in Chinese-made or non TAA-compliant drones.
We have a partnership with Freefly and our Skynode reference design is a part of their platform, as well as our software which is Blue sUAS-compliant. On the government side, we’ve started to take orders for the Astro with the U.S. government. We have a partnership with Vantage Robotics through Blue sUAS and their Vesper platform. They run a version of our software. Another company we have a very strategic partnership with is Quantum-Systems and their hybrid VTOLs. We’re also making those Blue sUAS-compliant.
The ecosystem of platform capabilities is really building up as we add more partners that can be used by the U.S. government without the downside of using “denied country” parts, software, things like that.
You’re working with the U.S. government at the moment. Do you plan on offering services to other countries that may not want to use Chinese-made drones?
This has started to come up, particularly on our Vantage partnership. We have engaged with several countries in Europe. I don’t have permission to tell you which ones just yet. They have been looking at Blue sUAS as they have the same issues with their current fleets and want to clean them out.
With your open-source software solutions, you guarantee security. How does that work?
We did a number of things with our DIU customer to comply with security and cybersecurity, overall. Some of these were changes we made to the code, itself, that we provide to the government. We went through testing to ensure that we’re not shipping data back to any place. The U.S. government can control their own data.
There are other little things like putting in secure bootloaders, ASCII encryption. There’s a litany of requests the government has made to ensure that data is protected.
As government agencies continue to adopt Auterion’s solutions, what do you predict for them as well as business, enterprise, and commercial growth in the next few years?
I think on the commercial side, our vision is that our software will be integrated into drone fleets and be trusted for enterprise application usage. That’s the primary focus. We’re starting to do that with our platform integrations with Freefly. The Freefly announcement with us was really important because it’s the first time that an enterprise drone is truly a direct competitor to DJI. It fills the niche of doing mapping and surveying – all the things a commercial institute would want to do. We want to see that proliferate with our software as we bring on other enterprise partners.
Our partnership with ESRI is another step along that way. They’re integrated to the point where we see a total workflow from platform to our software to ESRI. On the government side, it’s really working with DIU, our partners there, as well as the U.S. Army and other services to proliferate what we have done not just with the Blue sUAS contract but other things. Bringing on other applications like ATAC.
We’re seeing a lot of progress on the government side and we want to see it on the commercial side.
Do you see an increase in the adoption of Auterion’s platform that’s synonymous with commercial drone industry growth?
If we tally it up, we’re currently on about 1 million drones worldwide. The open-source connection we have where we’re providing content to the community is really important to us. Lorenz is chairman of the Dronecode Alliance and he keeps in touch with that whole community.
To answer your question, yes we do see an uptick that’s in sync with commercial industry growth.
You recently announced that Lockheed Martin’s former CTO joined Auterion’s board. Can you tell me more about your two recent selections and why you chose these individuals?
When we deal with the U.S. government, it’s important for us to speak the right language with them. We fully believe in brining commercial innovation to them, but we also need to be able to work with the Defense department and other government agencies. Brining on trusted hands like Heidi and Ray helps with that because they have unique insight. Heidi I had known from a past life, she has a mixture of technical ability as well as insight into where the government’s going. I would say the same thing about Ray.
We live in a very complex technical industry and for me, I want folks that understand the technology and what its applications are beyond just the business part of being a board member. They’re my trusted agents in understanding where the government’s going and how we might fit their needs, and maybe where we’re misaligned too.