Growing up in Santa Monica, Ben Marcus dreamed about a world in which futuristic robots zipped through the air en masse. Now he’s busy bringing that future closer to the present.
Marcus is the co-founder of AirMap, a locally based company whose software informs drone operators about the airspace in their vicinity to improve user experience and public safety.
But Marcus, a Santa Monica High School graduate, isn’t focused only on the impact of his company on recreational drone operators who want to record bird’s-eye videos just for fun. He is thinking about a future in which unmanned robotic aircraft will be essential to day-to-day life — for package delivery, law enforcement operations, oil and power line checks, agriculture, sports and beyond.
“We’re going to see more autonomous commercial operations beyond the line of human sight, so our technology will need to be able to help a drone not only understand its present surroundings but also be able to plan a flight path, choose the safest and most efficient route, taking into account regulatory restraints, winds, buildings, other drone traffic and manned aircraft,” he said. “We’re going to help autonomous drones accomplish that task.”
It’s the next frontier for a company that Marcus and Pepperdine University law professor Gregory McNeal launched in Santa Monica in April 2015. AirMap now employs 35 people, most of whom work locally, and provides mapping data to millions of users. Key to the growth of the company were partnerships with manufacturers whose drones are equipped to handle the software.
It’s the latest business endeavor for Marcus, whose love of aviation stems in part from his upbringing near Santa Monica Airport. The graduate of Grant Elementary and John Adams Middle schools learned to fly at the local airport and became a licensed pilot at age 17 before finishing Samohi in 1999 and studying aeronautics at Purdue University.
Marcus then served as a flight test engineer for Eclipse Aviation before co-founding jetAVIVA, a broker of small business jets, in 2006. And although he has more than 4,500 hours of flight experience in more than 100 types of aircraft, he said he’s always been passionate about democratizing the benefits of aviation.
“As I started thinking about drones and the impact they could have, I realized that technology alone wasn’t going to create history,” he said. “What was really gonna make drones a reality for people was finding engagement between technology and society.
We have to get to a place where people embrace drones and are not concerned about them. What are the societal questions that have to be answered about safety, security, privacy, nuisance and property rights? … We had to develop infrastructure that would create safe and efficient operating environments.”
Marcus saw Santa Monica as an appropriate host for AirMap, which has offices near Third Street Promenade, even though the City bans drones on the beach and in other public spaces. He noted the area’s history with Douglas Aircraft Co., as well as its recent focus on technology and start-up businesses.
“It’s incredible to use this as an opportunity to leverage Santa Monica’s heritage as center of aerospace in the 20th century and help make Santa Monica the center of aerospace in the 21st century,” he said. “But it won’t be about going to LAX and flying 16 hours to Thailand. It’ll be about tiny flying robots.”