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Control Your Own Drone Army

Maintenance personnel near the Mexican border check a Predator drone operated by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Maintenance personnel near the Mexican border check a Predator drone operated by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine

(An earlier version of this story ran online.)

For those who dream of force multiplication—military tacticians and teenage nerds alike—not much beats having a drone. Unless it’s having a whole fleet of coordinated drones. That vision got a little closer to reality on May 15, when DreamHammer, a Santa Monica startup, rolled out a beta version of software that would allow one person to control multiple unmanned vehicles. The software, called Ballista, works for all sorts of drones: aerial vehicles, wheeled rovers, ships, or submarines. In theory, a single person wielding an iPad could carry out a personal robo-D-day.

Ballista is meant to solve a little-noted problem with today’s drones: They’re not that much more efficient, personnel-wise, than manned vehicles. Each drone that U.S. military and intelligence services send on a mission requires a whole support and operations team, including a pilot, a person managing peripheral equipment (usually a camera or other sensor), someone to plan the route, and someone to make sense of the data.

Ballista consolidates much of this. A single operator can control a fleet of drones using a video-game-like interface running on a PC, tablet, or smartphone. One person can pilot a Global Hawk, for example, along with a Predator and a ScanEagle, even though they’re made by Northrop Grumman (NOC), General Atomics, and Boeing (BA), respectively. A program like Ballista “is something that has been sought after by the Department of Defense for many years,” says Dave Deptula, a retired general who was in charge of the U.S. Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and now advises DreamHammer. Ballista makes it easier to automate basic tasks like routing or even search. This could prove useful in all kinds of situations. Take forest fires. A satellite that spots smoke could direct a fleet of unmanned drones toward it with their payloads of water, all without having to wait for human input.

Part of why it’s so tough to coordinate multiple drones is that different manufacturers use their own software. This is a useful way to lock in customers, but it makes it hard for vehicles from different companies to communicate. It also stifles innovation. DreamHammer Chief Executive Nelson Paez compares this to the computer market of the 1950s and ’60s, dominated by IBM (IBM) and a few other giants. “If you needed new RAM, you had to go to IBM,” he says. “It was very expensive.”

In the late ’70s, though, Microsoft, Oracle, and other software companies began offering applications and operating systems that worked on any computer. This unified the experience across machines and allowed software developers to imagine new uses—spreadsheets, design, animation. Paez argues that Ballista does the same thing for the still-Balkanized world of drones. As an interface, Ballista sits atop a drone’s operating software, but it can also be used to add functions that the legacy systems don’t offer.

Most of DreamHammer’s revenue comes from selling software development kits to the U.S. government and drone manufacturers. In August the company will start charging manufacturers a fee to pre-install Ballista, the same way Microsoft (MSFT) charges PC makers like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Dell (DELL) to install Windows. Paez argues that this connectivity could enable a host of new drone applications—just as PC use multiplied in the 1980s—at a moment when the civilian drone market is poised to explode. The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to open U.S. airspace to commercial unmanned aircraft in 2015.

The prospect of a future where anyone can control their own drone armada raises obvious concerns about civil liberties, not to mention safety. Paez, for one, doesn’t fear the drone future. He waxes rhapsodic about the possibilities: FedEx (FDX) packages ferried cheaply across the sky by formations of pilotless planes, unmanned aircraft working in concert with unmanned tractors to manage giant farms—even, curiously, robot bartenders. “GM (GM) and other car manufacturers have been using robots since the 1960s,” he says. “We need to get out of this Stone Age that we’re in.”

The bottom line: DreamHammer is unveiling software that would let one person control the actions of a fleet of unmanned drones.

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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