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Mimicking an air traffic controller, AI orchestrates multiple drones in flight

Software from Israeli startup Airwayz Drones, set up by Israeli air force veterans, steers hundreds of unmanned vehicles in the same airspace without human intervention

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A drone flying near Nesher cement factory near Ramle, Israel (Airwayz Drones Ltd)
A drone flying near Nesher cement factory near Ramle, Israel (Airwayz Drones Ltd)

Israeli startup Airwayz Drones Ltd., set up by veterans of the Israeli airforce, has developed software that knows how to safely steer hundreds of drones in the same airspace, orchestrating them in the sky autonomously, just as a traditional human-manned air traffic control station would.

The technology of the Israeli company Airwayz managed some 20 drones from five companies simultaneously on Wednesday in the sky over an unpopulated area of the northern coastal city of Hadera. It was the first stage of a two-year initiative that is being touted by the Israel Innovation Authority and its partners in the event as one of the largest drone experiments ever conducted in the world.

“This is one of the most progressive experiments in the world, in which drones from many companies are flying in a open and not controlled area,” said Daniella Partem, head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Israel Innovation Authority, which is in charge of fostering the nation’s tech ecosystem.

The purpose of the large-scale government-backed experiment is to understand what our skies will look like in the future, as hundreds and thousands of drones pepper our firmament to meet various needs — online deliveries, photography, security, agriculture and more. Such traffic in the sky, of both tiny and bigger drones, will need guidance and supervision. The aim is to set out standards and regulations to prevent accidents, injuries and privacy intrusion from peeping drones.

The control room of Ayalon Highways, from which Airwayz operated its software to autonomously manage the drones, Haifa, March 17, 2021 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are used daily by Israel’s military in and around its borders, and Israel is hoping as well to use the technological prowess developed in the field to become a global player in the multibillion-dollar civilian sector, competing against China and the US.

The global commercial drone market is projected to grow significantly by 2025, according to ResearchandMarkets, driven by a rise in demand for aerial services and advancements in camera, mapping and other software.

The military industry accounts for the largest share of the global drone market, with the vehicles used in surveillance, rescue operations, delivery of supplies to troops, and mapping and gathering information about hostile places before a mission, the report said. But construction and agriculture are becoming two major civilian areas of the drone market.

The three co-founders of Airwayz Drones Ltd., left to right: Eyal Zor, Shai Kurianki, Yair Yosef (Courtesy)

The software developed by the startup, which was set up in 2018 by Yair Yosef, Shai Kurianki and Eyal Zor, is based on cloud-connected artificial intelligence-based algorithms that enable drones from a variety of companies and models to interact with one another in shared airspace without human intervention.

“We bring our unique experience as ex-air force personnel to how to manage the airspace with multiple vehicles in real time,” said Zor in a phone interview. “We took that knowhow and created technology to mimic” how traditional air traffic controllers manage airspace.

Traditional aviation is monitored by air traffic control towers manned by humans who direct pilots onto designated routes, to prevent collusions and organize the flow of air traffic. Drones, which are unmanned vehicles, need unmanned traffic management, Zor said, which is what the software developed by Airwayz enables.

The AI-based software developed by Airwayz Drones Ltd. to orchestrate the flight of multiple drones in the same airspace, in action (Courtesy)

For this to work, all of the drones that operate in a shared airspace need to be using the same connection to the Airwayz management system, Zor explained. It will be up to the regulators to determine what software will be chosen to regulate that specific airspace. “The whole ecosystem is being developed now,” Zor said, noting that there were a number of competitors both locally and abroad striving for the same outcome.

“What is unique about our technology is that our airspace management mimics how air aviation works with sophisticated algorithms,” and it operates “just like real pilots and air traffic controllers do,” he said. The software is also able to react to a variety of different situations in real time.

The firm, which employs 15 people in Tel Aviv, has raised several million dollars from investors to date and has received a grant from the Israel Innovation Authority.

The two-year pilot project is being run by the Israel Innovation Authority, the Transportation Ministry, the Israel Aviation Authority, the Ayalon Highways Co. and the Prime Minister’s Office.

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