Source: Light Reading
By: Dan Jones
Commercial drone startups are flying high in 2015.
High-profile startups such as 3D Robotics have, between them, already raised a significant $50 million in funding this year. Major companies such as General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) are investing to help fund the take-off of commercial unmanned vehicles (UAVs). Venture capital firms have already started to get on the drone bandwagon in 2014.
CBI Insights says that venture funding reached $108 million in 29 deals in 2014, more than double the previous year.
“Year-over-year funding increased 104% as venture firms including Lightspeed Venture Partners, GGV Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, among others, jumped into the drone space with sizeable bets,” – the analyst firm notes on its blog.
Drones in the Field
Drones are already being used in the farming sector — just ask this cow!
Not all of these bets will pay off, of course. There are still wide differences in how commercial drones are regulated around the world. Issues such as how to set up traffic control systems for this new class of aircraft are yet to be fully resolved and are particularly crucial in the US, which has a number of privately owned aircraft flying in its airspace that are not equipped with the type of sophisticated location equipment used by military aircraft or commercial jet-liners. (See FAA Lays Out First Proposal for Small Drones .)
Standards around developing and programming drones are also an issue. (See Qualcomm, Intel Back Drones Code Project.)
Drones, however, are already starting to claim their place as the aerial wing of the Internet of Things (IoT): Initial applications include capturing footage for movies, TV, and documentaries, and data collection for agricultural and construction projects.
Early communications-specific applications will include using drones to provide ad-hoc, temporary wireless coverage for first responders. This could expand into more ambitious networking projects in the coming years, with Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) pushing ambitious plans for high-altitude communications drones. (See Forget the Internet, Brace for Skynet.)
As this market develops, which startups are making their mark? We picked out ten to watch:
1. 3D Robotics
San Diego, Calif.-based 3D Robotics is the best financed startup in the commercial drone space at the moment. It has pulled in $85 million in three rounds of venture funding so far.
Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)’s venture arm led the latest $50 million round, which was announced in February. The chipmaker is partnering with 3D Robotics to give its Snapdragon chip platform wings as the smartphone silicon moves into the world of unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs).
Founded in 2009, 3D Robotics is a leader in the hobbyist drone market but is using its funding to expand into the commercial arena. The firm has also developed a line of open-source software for command, management and tracking of various types of drones.
San Francisco-based Airware has attracted a lot of interest from VC companies and other investors because it has developed a software and hardware platform that companies can use to develop their own commercial drones.
Airwave’s work has also caught the attention of NASA. The US space agency partnered with the company in September 2014 to develop an air traffic management system for unmanned aircraft that will deal with both high- and low-altitude operations.
Founded in 2011, Airwave has so far raised over $40 million in funding from multiple investors, the latest being an undisclosed strategic investment from GE Ventures. Other investors include Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
San Francisco-based Skycatch is focused on developing both high- and low-altitude data capture systems and providing the software to analyse that data.
One initial application for that capability is providing 2D and 3D image data of construction sites from the air, using remote drones. Komatsu, one of the world’s largest makers of heavy machinery for construction and mining, plans to integrate Skycatch’s autonomous aerial data capture system into its construction business.
The startup has pulled in nearly $20 million in funding. The latest $13.2 million equity round came in May 2014.
Raleigh, N.C.-based PrecisionHawk has aerial mapping and tracking software for drones and is pushing its LATAS (Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System) as a mechanism to safely deploy commercial drones in US air space. This March, the company revealed that it will also be working with NASA on its drone air traffic control system.
The company claims that “50 customers across a wide variety of industries from agriculture, energy, forestry, and government” are adopting its platform. It has accrued $11 million in funding from Millennium Technology Value Partners, Intel Capital and others.
5. Sunlight Photonics
Edison, N.J.-based Sunlight Photonics can lay claim to the first commercially available drone that runs entirely on solar power. The company, which was founded in 2008, unveiled the Sunlink-5 last May.
It has reportedly raised $2 million in debt funding so far.
Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kespry is another startup, like SkyCatch, that has developed a drone system for aerial data collection. Kespry says that its system is aimed at the construction industry.
These industrial and agricultural applications are likely to be among the first commercial drone applications that gain traction in the US. The FAA has issued Section 333 exemptions for commerical drone use to film-makers and companies using drones to make aerial inspections: 69 exemptions have been granted so far.
Kespry was founded in January 2013. It has so far raised $12.4 million in funding.
San Francisco-based DroneDeploy has developed a drone management platform. This can be used for aerial data capture in industries that need that kind of information, such as agriculture or construction. The startup’s software works with several popular hobbyist drones.
DroneDeploy was founded in 2013. The company has just raised $9 million in series A funding, bringing its funding to $11 million in total.
Ex-Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and MIT specialists are working on a system to make drones fly more accurately than human pilots. “A drone that’s aware of its surroundings is far easier to control, safer to operate, and more capable,” the company states.
Menlo Park, Calif.-based Skydio launched in January 2015. It has $3 million in seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners .
9. Vires Aeronautics
Livermore, Calif.-based Vires Aero is designing “Ora,” a “high performance” commercial drone with a new type of wing. Vires says that its Active Circulation Control (ACC) design improves the lift of fixed-wing aircraft by improving the airflow around the wing.
Founded in 2013, Vires has $1 million in series A funding.
10. SkyWorks Aerial Systems
Henderson, N.V.-based SkyWorks Aerial Systems can circumvent the FAA’s rules about commercial drones in US air space because it is developing a drone that can be used for industrial applications indoors. The “Qua.R.K.” is a carbon composite multi-rotor vehicle that can be used indoors and outside.
SkyWorks grew out of a student project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The team is looking to pull in $1 million in seed funding this year.
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