Drones’ Impact Beyond Defence: Data Collecting, Mobility

Venture capitalists may get on board when the F.A.A. opens airspace to commercial drones

Drones are the personal computers of the 2010s, at least in terms of financing: the money’s all coming from entrepreneurs’ bank accounts.

“They get just enough money to make a prototype, get it out the door and get a couple of clients,” says Maryanna Saenko, an analyst with the science and technology consulting firm Lux Research.

Venture capitalists may get on board when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration opens up airspace to some commercial drones, but until then, drones are a risky investment.

Still, Boston-based CyPhy Works raised $10 million U.S. in venture capital, probably because founder Helen Greiner’s got a robotics rep to bet on. She co-founded iRobot, which built military robots that remotely detonate bombs as well as the Roomba vacuuming robot.

San Francisco’s Airware, which is building an operating system to let drones and added components work together, has raised $40 million from  big name investors like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Small drones may have a big impact outside the defence industry, and they’re “certainly more interesting and beneficial to society,” says Airware CEO Johnathan Downey.

Greiner agrees, believing that robots can improve and simplify everyday human activities.

“You can solve a mobility problem easier because they don’t have to deal with all that stuff on the ground,” she says. Drones can fly on an “unobstructed highway” just above trees and power lines.

Mike Abbott, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins, is most impressed with drones’ data collection abilities.

“I’d like to think it will be life altering,” Abbott says. “But time will tell.”


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