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6 Drone Startups Getting Funding Not Called DJI

DJI is the undisputed global market leader in drones with a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on offer for the consumer, commercial and enterprise markets. The company started out with more than $105 million in funding from the likes of Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital, and has now reached a valuation of $10 billion. Still, they continue to raise funding and scale as the company plans to raise a whopping $500-800 million ahead of a planned IPO in 2019. According to an article by TechNode, DJI commands a 70% global market share of consumer drones which drove 80% of their profits on sales of $2.7 billion in 2017. While we might be tempted to think DJI is the only game in town, there is still a lot of innovation happening in the drone airspace.

We decided to take a quick look on Crunchbase to see what sorts of drone startups have been getting funding that aren’t called DJI. Here’s a look at 6 drone technology startups competing with, or working alongside DJI, who received the most funding in the past 12 months.

Note that a startup called Solid Energy came up in the list but we left them out. That’s because we wrote about them before in our article on lithium battery startups. While Solid Energy is targeting drone batteries now, they’re actually targeting consumer electronics and electric vehicles as well. It’s more of a play on batteries than drones.

Here are six drone startups that raised sizable funding rounds in the past year.

Founded in 2009, Berkeley startup 3D Robotics raised $53 million in Series D funding bringing their total to $179 million. When we first covered the company back in 2015, 3DR’s value proposition was a combination of physical drone and open-source flight control software. However early adopters discovered that 3DR’s Solo drone, once hailed as potentially “the smartest drone ever” by The Verge, came with GPS connectivity issues and bugs resulting in drones flying away and crashing. In October of 2016, Forbes wrote an article on the fall of 3DR which described what happened as follows:

In 12 months, the company has gone from an industry leading U.S. drone startup to an organization struggling to survive–the result of mismanagement, ill-advised projections and a failed strategy that relied on a doomed flagship drone. As a result, 3D Robotics has laid off more than 150 people, burned through almost $100 million in venture capital funding and completely changed its business strategy.

So what new business strategy has 3DR come up with? Firstly, they discontinued sales of Solo altogether, though some remaining pieces are still available on Amazon at bargain basement prices. They then got into bed with DJI and switched tracks to become a drone data platform with their flagship Site Scan product:

Source: 3DR

Site Scan is a comprehensive area survey application aimed at construction companies that helps manage mapping, earthworks, civil engineering, and provides quality control throughout the project. The software enables repeated autonomous flights producing 2D and 3D imagery, monitoring changes and flagging locations where personal oversight is needed. The service comes with training, client service and a choice between three drones (two of them DJI, the third an upgraded version of 3DR’s Solo carrying a high resolution Sony camera). Companies in the insurance, utilities, and telecom sectors are expected to use the service for automating regular inspection routines. Looks like 3DR should be added to our list of 7 Startups Using Drones for Inspections & Monitoring.

Founded in 2014, Redwood city, California startup Skydio raised $42 million in early 2018 bringing total funding to $70 million. We first came across Skydio in our article on 8 AI Startups Doing Computer Vision because the product is a self-flying video tool which is equipped with 13 cameras that look in all directions at once, along with a myriad of technologies to make sure the best video is being captured. Using NVIDIA chips, it recognizes and follows a human target while constantly updating a map of its surroundings, and learns through analyzing previous flight data. The R1 has lots of flight modes including orbit, side, lead, follow, stadium, or manual making it a true sports tracking device.

Source: Skydio

Skydio makes its Autonomy Engine available for developers which practically outsources new functionality development. For the moment, the R1’s $2,500 price tag makes it an expensive toy for early adopters. Success of the product will depend on how the team can apply this technology to future versions affordable to the masses, and if they can stay ahead of DJI. According to an article by Quartz a few months ago, “many of DJI’s drones, including the Spark and the newly released Mavic Air, can do the majority of what the R1 can do (albeit with a little more elbow grease required) for a fraction of the price“.

Founded in 2012, San Francisco startup Swift Navigation has raised $34 million in their Series B round mid-2017 bringing their total funding to $47.6 million. Their team has developed a cheap, centimeter-accurate GPS technology for autonomous vehicles and robots. The receivers connect not only to American satellites (this is the network we call GPS), but also to the ones in the Russian positioning system called GLONASS, and are hardware-ready for the Chinese and European networks as well. This provides access to dozens of satellites at the same time giving Swift’s chips robust performance in challenging skyview environments for the small price of $595:

Source: Swift Navigation

While that price tag might seem steep, it’s not. The company uses widely available cellphone components in their chips allowing them to price their products that “low”, about one tenth of the competition, Swift claims. Packages containing two receivers are available for rapid prototyping and the Linux-based core software allows for custom development. Swift recently introduced Skylark, a cloud-based location correction service that replaces the traditional model of using dedicated radio antennas and base stations. The service is already available to subscribers in a number of U.S. cities and only needs an internet connection to use.

Founded in 2013, Silicon Valley startup Kespry raised $33 million around the end of 2017 bringing their total funding to $61 million. They’re another company we’ve covered before in our article on 8 Startups Building Robotic Construction Workers. Kespry provides a subscription based industrial site survey service similar to 3DR’s Site Scan. Users can set a drone flight path using an iPad which is then documented by the same 20-megapixel Sony camera 3DR uses. The drones carry dual frequency global positioning receivers, similar to Swift Navigation’s chips, that mitigate electronic interference common in industrial settings.

Source: Kespry

High resolution data is uploaded into cloud storage (no need to deal with SD cards), analyzed for volume, elevation, and pitch, and modeled using the images collected. Kespry’s clients come from quarrying, mining, construction, insurance, and roofing, and there are all kinds of customer success stories to read about. The latest investment will be used to expand company presence internationally and expand into the energy utility sector. Last year Kespry partnered with another company we’ve covered before, airspace management platform AirMap, to ensure flights are safe and airspace requirements are met every time.

Founded in 2014, Shenzen, China startup MicroMultiCopter Aero Technology raised $30 million in November of last year which brought their total funding to $40 million. The company is manufacturing 6-rotor industrial drones for site surveys, power line stringing, and agricultural applications. The drones are made of carbon fiber (MMC owns the largest carbon fiber frame factory in Asia) and aerospace grade aluminum, and can carry more than 200 plug-and-play payload modules.

Source: MicroMultiCopter Aero Technology

Besides the battery powered version, MMC offers a drone that runs on hydrogen which provides a longer flight time and quicker refueling. MMC also offers a power supply tether that’s compatible with all major drone brands (in other words, DJI) so that you can operate your drones 24/7. You can also rent their drones if you only need them for a shorter period of time.

Founded in 2015, San Francisco startup Airspace Systems raised $20 million in March of this year, bringing their total funding to $25 million. The company offers a drone security solution that identifies, tracks, and autonomously removes rogue drones from the sky. Their system uses a combination of machine vision and deep learning to identify the target from the ground, then their own security drone intercepts the offender and retrieves it with a tethered kevlar net. Here’s the platform in action:

Source: Airspace Systems

The CEO of Airspace Systems, Jaz Banga, is currently the sole member of the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Administration) Drone Advisory Committee representing anti-drone technology. He calls his company’s security solution “a firewall in the sky” which will be used by customers in the entertainment, utilities and enterprise segments who need to protect large areas like stadiums or factories. The latest funding round will be used to scale production of their defense system and to grow their engineering, software developer and machine vision teams.

Consumer and commercial adoption of drones is becoming widespread enough that it’s creating highly specialized industry segments. Use cases like area surveying, flight operations, anti-drone security, drone data processing, and drone racing are becoming industries in their own right. DJI might be the king of drone hardware, but there are plenty of new avenues for startups to innovate in that investors continue to pour money into.

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