One of the individuals I was fortunate enough to interview for my 20.17 Big Ideas for 2017 series, where I asked leading experts for their advice on the year ahead, was Greg McNeal, co-founder of AirMap. The hot startup ($15 million Series A funding round in 2016) has created a low-altitude airspace management system that's been already adopted by 125 US airports and counting. Moreover, thanks to partnerships with manufacturers like DJI and Intel, AirMap's system has been baked into 80% of today's drones.

McNeal, an an expert on drone regulation and policy, believes that understanding the rise of the "Smart City" of tomorrow will give you a leg up in 2017. Here's some of our conversation:

Fascinating topic. Why should the rise of the Smart City matter to the typical businessperson?

Demographic shifts show us that people are moving to cities in droves. We're becoming an increasingly urban nation: the city is the backdrop for all of the economic, commercial and social activities of our lives. And as cities become denser and more urban, they are relying on technology to help them accommodate the influx of new residents and improve quality of life for all.

Today, that takes the form of ridesharing and platforms for civic tech and data sharing. Tomorrow, cities will be the first use cases of mobility solutions that seem like science fiction. You'll hail a flying Uber for your daily commute - and much sooner than you think.

Cities have become some of the most vibrant and progressive places for technological development. They have dense cellular networks to facilitate connectivity and information sharing. They've become hubs for Internet of Things sensors that can help us describe our world. And they bring together bright, creative people in close proximity to each other, catalyzing innovation.

What technologies in particular are you paying close attention to, with respect to smart cities?

Top of mind for me in the smart cities space: platforms for autonomous navigation, connectivity (cellular and GPS), civic tech, and of course, drones.

Smart city technology often starts with the need to deliver services more rapidly and more efficiently to residents. Drones have a tremendous amount of potential to help cities better serve the people who live in them. Today, thousands of drones are already being used to improve city life: drones are being used to document accident scenes, support first responder activities, monitor construction sites, and more. In 2017, we'll see drones take on more of these responsibilities, and tasks that are dull or dangerous for city workers.

This is just the very beginning. In the future, connected drones will navigate autonomously through cities. Millions of both commercial and civic drones will fly billions of missions to serve city residents. With that, I suspect that cities will want to make rules about where drones can take off, land, and operate above city streets - guidelines that will determine how the industry grows and cities flourish.

AirMap's obviously had a big year in 2016. What's next for you in 2017?

The vast majority of drones operating today with network connectivity receive airspace data to help the operator make safe flight decisions - and they likely get that info from AirMap. More than a million drones, the vast majority worldwide, are powered by AirMap (our main competitor is non-consumption) and we expect that trend to continue.

In 2017, we will be expanding our network of stakeholders, which presently includes more than 125 airports. And we will continue to work with the FAA and provide thought leadership locally and globally to ensure that cities and their residents benefit from drones, and that drones are used in safe and accountable ways. We'll also be announcing partnerships with major corporations that share our vision of the future.

With that said, it's difficult to predict what will happen in 2017. We're only 18 months old, and already we have a team of 45, and 90% market share. Who knows what the future will bring - but we're excited about all of the opportunities on the horizon.

How do you feel that AirMap fits into the architecture of the smart cities of tomorrow?

AirMap's airspace management platform is the only one connected to over a million drones, so we're already playing a role in cities today. Drones are about to become an indispensable part of city life, and we're talking to state and local stakeholders to help create an environment that allows drones to flourish, while also giving local concerns a seat at the table. We're building a technology solution - which many people call Unmanned Traffic Management - to help make drones a part of everyday life.


Looking for more Big Ideas for 2017? Download the entire ebook here. And here's wishing you the ability to look beyond the obvious corporate perks in creating an epic corporate culture in the year ahead.