DOWNTOWN — Imagine using your smartphone or tablet to order a driverless car to whisk you through town as it interacts with traffic control systems to find the best route for you to run errands, or controlling a satellite that can identify a fire in a remote area and dispatch a drone to fly over and drop water before the blaze gets out of hand.
Those are just some of the applications that could be possible thanks to Santa Monica-based DreamHammer, a software developer that has recently made available an operating system that for the first time allows unrelated, unmanned drones and robots from different manufacturers to communicate and work together. The Ballista software is poised to become the industry standard for drone and robot control for the multi-billion dollar global unmanned systems industry, with the potential to better protect workers in dangerous jobs while also increasing productivity.
“We are looking at the next industrial revolution,” said DreamHammer CEO Nelson Paez, who helped found the company back in 2000 out of a home along the Venice canals. “This is the model that gets drones and robots to where we have always thought they were going to be.”
Managing multiple drones is a unique challenge, due to the fact that each drone type has proprietary control systems. That’s great for drone builders. The unique software codes and operating features lock the Pentagon and other purchasers into an exclusive and expensive relationship. That makes it difficult for smaller agencies or individuals to get into the game.
Paez is looking to change that. If the military adopts Ballista, dronemakers like Northrop Grumman and Boeing would have to license Paez’ software so their unmanned systems could be plugged into the military’s. Boeing declined comment for this story. Northrop Grumman did not return phone calls for comment.
“In the past, anyone wanting a unified system had to develop the actual drone hardware. Ballista allows government or commercial customers to link together machines from numerous developers performing a variety of tasks,” Paez said.
He emphasized the efficiency of Ballista, which DreamHammer, located on Colorado Avenue in Downtown, has spent roughly $5 million developing.
“Some unmanned systems take as many as 200 people to manage a single drone, much more resources than manned vehicles. Ballista allows a single user to manage multiple drones simultaneously,” he said.
That means farmers, filmmakers and smaller law enforcement agencies like the Santa Monica Police Department would also be able to use unmanned systems too since operating them would become less complex and relatively inexpensive.
“The key to the future of drones and robots will be their ability to work together,” Paez said. “Until now, there has been no way to tie them together. Because Ballista is so intelligent and easy to integrate and operate, a user who previously required extensive training to manage one drone or robot can now manage multiple drones or robots simultaneously — all to achieve a single task or coordinated mission.”
While that may boost productivity, it also means many people will find themselves obsolete and in need of training. The technology has the potential to dramatically change the labor market, which has some concerned. Who will fund the extra education and training necessary for future generations? How long will it take to adapt? Will there be enough new jobs created to meet demand?
Michael Toscano certainly thinks so.
He is president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Systems International, the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the industry. The association recently put out an economic impact report that said the industry has the potential to generate $13.6 billion and 70,000 high-paying jobs in the first three years following the integration of unmanned systems in the national airspace, with California reaping many of the benefits because of the already established aerospace industry and agriculture.
The Federal Aviation Administration must first allow commercial drones to operate, something which is expected by 2015 or shortly thereafter. (The California State Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would establish standards for the domestic use of drones.) Once that happens, Toscano believes those projections could be rosier, that is if the federal government moves quickly enough to establish proper regulations and beat other countries to the punch.
“If you can make the farmer more productive by using these systems, someone has to build and maintain them,” he said. “Those are high-paying jobs.”
With more wealth generated, governments will have more tax dollars to invest in education, training the next generation of workers, Toscano said.
Concerns about privacy and safety are legitimate, Toscano said, and with every transformative technology there are learning curves and fears that need to be addressed. He welcomes the involvement of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to help develop solutions.
“There is a tremendous upside to this technology, but we also must pay attention to the things that cause this technology to not be used in the best ways possible,” said Toscano, who does not like to use the word “drone” because it has a hostile connotation (think war on terror) and does not reflect how unmanned systems are used domestically. “People are always going to be resistant to change because they don’t know what it means to them. That’s just human nature.”
DreamHammer is currently licensing its Ballista software only to governments and other key players in the industry so they can test it out and identify its strengths and weaknesses before making it available to the general public. Paez would not disclose the cost of the software, but said pricing will be “invisible” to those already manufacturing or purchasing drones.
DreamHammer had revenues of $6 million in 2012 and raised its first external funding to support that growth, Paez said.
If all goes well, Paez said he will expand operations in Santa Monica. DreamHammer has offices in Virginia, Hawaii, and Belgium, with much of the software being designed in San Diego.
“Santa Monica has great developers and we plan on expanding development to Santa Monica as well,” he said. “We see the entertainment industry as one of the stronger users of drones in the future.”