April 04, 2016      

Never mind the robot uprising; aerial drones are already storming into the global economy, as seen in the latest drone funding for investments in agriculture, industrial inspection, and deliveries.

“The combined commercial, consumer, civil government, and military drone market could reach a cumulative $100 billion between now and 2020, rivaling the size of the helicopter market, with ripple effects to areas such as insurance, camera makers, and component manufacturers,” said a recent Goldman Sachs report.

As a result, companies offering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for commercial uses have easily gained investor attention, but they still have to prove themselves in applications.

For instance, SkySquirrel Technologies Inc., which provides drone-based monitoring for precision agriculture, has closed a $1 million round of funding.

Halifax, Nova Scotia-based SkySquirrel received $500,000 from Innovacorp, the province’s early-stage venture capital organization. An undisclosed private investor provided the remaining $500,000.

SkySquirrel plans to use the funding to further develop its unmanned aircraft systems to watch vineyards for early signs of disease, help optimize water and fertilizer use, and aid land-use planning.

According to the company, its “turnkey” system includes the AQWEO autonomous quadcopter, the Quanta multispectral camera, and the Dronefuse cloud-based data analytics service.

SkySquirrel's unmanned aircraft systems are used to monitor vineyards.

SkySquirrel’s drones can detect early signs of disease in vineyards, saving them from costly replanting.

SkySquirrel partnered with Saint Helena, Calif.-based VineView Scientific Aerial Imaging Inc., whose technology is used to map plant health and watch for diseases like leafroll. Such diseases can be cost vineyards thousands of dollars per acre if replanting is necessary.

SkySquirrel had previously signed a memorandum of understanding with Deep Vision Inc. in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for sensory and collision-avoidance technology.

The company hit its first-year revenue target of $150,000 within six months, but agricultural robotics startups need to understand the differences within their market.

“Corn producers don’t have the same needs as wheat farmers or canola producers,” said Doug Knox, vice president of technology at Bioenterprise Corp., an agricultural technology accelerator. “The biggest barrier to entry to the agricultural market is creating awareness.”

The global market for wine is $85 billion per year, and SkySquirrel already serves Canada, Chile, China, France, Spain, and Switzerland.

“This investment will let us ramp up to launch the next-generation of our product before the current year’s growing season is in full swing,” said Richard Van der Put, SkySquirrel co-founder and CEO. “We’ll also be able to hit the gas on pursuing new customers in the U.S. and Europe.”

Intel acquires Ascending Technologies

Earlier this year, Intel Corp. acquired Ascending Technologies GmbH for an undisclosed amount. Krailing, Germany-based Ascending makes UAVs for civil, professional, and research use.

Intel said that its RealSense 3D camera technology can make drones safer, especially once it’s combined with Ascending’s autopilot software and algorithms.

All 75 employees of Ascending Technologies were given job offers, according to Intel.

Like chip-making rival Qualcomm Inc., Intel hopes its investments will create an “ecosystem” of drones and robots that use its technology, since the markets for computers and smartphones have slowed.

Intel had previously invested $60 million in Chinese drone maker Yuneec International Co., and it demonstrated RealSense on a Yuneec Typhoon H at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Yuneec is being sued by Shenzhen, China-based rival Dajiang Innovation Technology Inc. (DJI) for allegedly infringing on a patent for “systems and methods for target tracking.”

Intel has also partnered with AT&T Inc. to test the use of UAVs that connect to the LTE wireless network. Assuming that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows drones to be used beyond the line of sight, LTE-connected UAVs could have uses for telecommunications and the Internet of Things (IoT).

“Our LTE network is uniquely positioned to connect industries like delivery, agriculture, construction, and insurance,” said Chris Penrose, senior vice president of IoT solutions at AT&T. “We’re using the network to transfer important information, images and video quickly and efficiently — far beyond the boundaries of short-range connectivity.”

MicaSense gets Parrot drone funding

Parrot SA raised $7.4 million for MicaSense Inc., which makes sensors that can be put on Parrot’s drones for agricultural inspection.

The Seattle-based company’s ATLAS is a cloud-based data service that stores, processes, and analyzes imagery data from its RedEdge and new Parrot Sequoia sensors.

“MicaSense has strengthened its ties with Parrot and is on a path to join the Parrot family of companies in the next several years,” said MicaSense CEO Gabriel Torres. “This provides MicaSense the backing of one of the key players in the industry, with the flexibility to serve the entire commercial drone market.”

Parrot's Sequoia sensor

The Parrot Sequoia sensor is designed for the agricultural market.

Paris-based Parrot had previously invested $2 million in MicaSense and is looking to expand from the consumer market to commercial drones.

Also in precision agriculture, India-based startup Aarav Unmanned Systems last month received unspecified bridge funding from StartupXseed Ventures LLP, which runs the Aaruha Technology Fund.

Aarav Unmanned Systems‘ Nayan quadcopter can be used for crop monitoring, 3D mapping, security, and industrial inspection.

Kruger National Park in South Africa has been using UAVs from Unmanned Ariel Vehicle and Drone Solutions as part of a 254.8 million rand ($17.25 million) plan to reduce poaching of endangered wildlife.

Cyberhawk, Airware raise funds for drone inspections

More recently, Cyberhawk Innovations Ltd. received £2 million ($2.85 million) in funding from Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banks.

Livingston, Scotland-based Cyberhawk was founded in 2008 and provides remotely operated aerial vehicles (ROAVs) for inspection of offshore oil, gas, and wind facilities. The company’s iHawk software manages and analyzes image data in the cloud.

“Capturing images with drones may be considered a relatively simple process in certain market segments, but turning that data into something which is of genuine value to asset managers is the real challenge for the industry,” said Craig Roberts, CEO of Cyberhawk.

Cyberhawk plans to increase its staff from about 50 employees in offices in the U.K., the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Also, Airware announced a $30 million fundraising led by Next World Capital. Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers will be joining its board of directors.

San Francisco-based Airware is expanding from drone operating systems to hardware and software, in part because its enterprise customers don’t have the expertise to assemble drones themselves.

“We’ve heard enterprises asking for a complete solution from a single provider, and we’re able to offer that solution,” said Airware CEO Jonathan Downey.

State Farm Insurance will be among Airware’s first customers. It plans to use drones for adjustments on roof insurance claims.

More on Commercial Drones:

Drone deliveries still in the works

An advisory committee last week submitted recommendations to the FAA for standards that would specify the size and weight (including payloads) of drones that would fly over populated areas.

In the meantime, Amazon.com Inc. has filed for a patent on propellers that could use lights or sounds to warn people on the ground of their presence. Amazon has been pursuing aerial drones for package deliveries.

In addition, e-commerce company Rakuten Inc. has taken a 20 percent stake in drone maker Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory, and the two Japanese companies plan to test deliveries of drinks and balls to golfers in May.