iRobot founder Helen Greiner on drones, the FAA, and how to succeed in business without really flying

CyPhy Ease

Nidhi Subbaraman 

Helen Greiner didn’t just put the ‘robot’ in iRobot. Starting as an 11-year-old who wanted to build R2-D2, she achieved her a dream twice: after co-founding iRobot and ushering it to an IPO in 2005, Greiner left to createa second company, CyPhy Works, that builds flying robots.

Greiner spoke at the RoboBusiness conference in Boston last week, and shared her views on some of the challenges facing the commercial drone industry. Chief among them: How do you grow while the Federal Aviation Administration continues to bully you out of the skies?

Greiner’s Danvers startup CyPhy Works builds “persistent flying” drones. These are small hovering drones, tethered to a power source and can stay hovering overhead for hours.

Until recently, the FAA has been grounding all commercial drone-makers that have tried to fly their crafts in US air space without explicit permission. In September, the FAA announced that it was granting movie makers access to the skies. That was only slighty surprising considering how camera-strapped drones are a favorite among film-makers and photographers — and considering Hollywood’s clout.

Greiner said that the FAA’s approach to opening up the airspace industry-by-industry is a mistake: It restricts access to groups that have the strongest lobbying power, stacking the deck against companies developing new technology. “I think it really discriminates against the small innovative people and that’s not something the government should be doing,” she told a filled room.

That’s something the trade group for “unmanned aerial vehicles” — as small drone makers like to call themselves — weighs in on time and time again. According to one AUVSI estimate, the US is ceding about $27 million for each day the FAA bans commercial testing and flights in the US airspace. The real damage goes deeper, Greiner said, because there is a “real first move advantage — we’re giving up the future of the market, not just at $25 million.”

The regulations have already sent tech and business titans to foreign shores. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have each staked their claims in the drone space—Amazon and Google with deliveries and Facebook for Internet. Yet Google chose to develop its Project Wing drones in Australia, and as the Washington Post revealed, Amazon had to pick an “undisclosed” international location to shoot its drone delivery commercial.

“I think if Google could have gotten permission to test here, they would have done it,” Greiner said. “There are plenty of locations out west that are just as barren.”

Not one person in the room filled with journalists, investors and startup members expected the FAA to meet its 2015 deadline to include commercial drones in the US airspace.

The FAA’s dawdling has landed the administration in a comical role that seems to be all too familiar to folks who watch this space. It goes something like this: Company tries to fly drones under the radar. FAA writes a Strongly Worded Letter and slaps down a fine. The company appeals the ban and fine. Everybody waits.

As Greiner observed: “They’re trying to play whackamole.”

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