General Electric has its eye on the sky with its latest Boston-based venture, a startup called Airxos that will specialize in traffic management software, hardware, and services for aerial drones.
Most drones sold these days have been either lower-priced consumer models or high-end machines procured for military use. GE will focus on the next big growth opportunity: commercial drones that companies and government agencies expect to use for tasks such as industrial inspections at locations that can be either risky to access or inaccessible for people.
“The gap between the consumer market and the [defense] market, it’s a very fragmented market,” Airxos general manager Ken Stewart said. “This is the market that we see, we’re building products to support that. Everything we do is about integrating unmanned vehicles safely into the national airspace.”
Company officials said the Airxos business — the “x” is silent — will be based at GE headquarters in Fort Point, with offices at a GE Aviation facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., and several test sites. Stewart is based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Under development for more than a year, GE officially launched Airxos after it landed key roles in three US Department of Transportation pilot programs in San Diego, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.
GE officials declined to say how much money GE is investing in the Airxos venture. The new startup is a joint venture of GE Business Innovations and GE Aviation, and executives from both groups serve on Airxos’s board, Stewart said.
Stewart said Airxos will also help clients navigate the complicated process the Federal Aviation Administration has set up to get an exemption to its drone rules.
Operators cannot fly at night or over people, and must keep the drones within the line of sight and under 55 pounds.
Most of the waivers the FAA has granted so far, Stewart said, have been from the night-flying limits.
Airxos will sometimes work with Avitas Systems, a GE Ventures-backed subsidiary that provides inspection services to industrial users such as utilities and oil rig operators. The two are part of the team on the DOT project in Oklahoma testing inspection drones that will fly beyond an operator’s visual line of sight, and at night.
Max Versace, chief executive of Boston-based artificial intelligence startup Neurala, said the drone industry in the United States has gone through times of stops and starts because of technology and regulatory hurdles. As the field grows, he said, bigger companies such as GE are flanking startups for business opportunities.
Versace sees this as a positive development, in part because it could mean more clients for his firm’s software.
“Having GE . . . investing heavily in drone technology is a great boost for our ecosystem,” said Versace, whose office is near GE’s headquarters in Fort Point. “We hope this is going to be another engine of innovation in the Seaport and beyond.”
CyPhy Works, a drone company in Danvers that primarily sells to the defense market, is also eyeing the commercial market. Chief executive Lance Vanden Brook said his firm is working with a large petrochemical company to roll out drones next year that can handle industrial inspections in confined spaces.
“What we’re seeing is a heavy adoption in a variety of different industries that include oil and gas, telecom, and large manufacturing plants,” Vanden Brook said. “It’s safer than putting humans on scaffolding and climbing ladders and climbing towers . . . [GE is] thinking about it the right way, by making the investment at the right time.”Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.