CyPhy Works Gets $7M More to Make Commercial Drone Program Fly

11/5/13Follow @curtwoodward

The race to get more drones into American skies is definitely on, and Boston-area entrepreneurs are jockeying to secure their spot.

CyPhy Works, the drone startup headed by iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, says it now has another $7 million to aid in that task. The new investment was led by Lux Capital, with General Catalyst, Felicis Ventures, and angel investors also putting in cash.

CyPhy publicly unveiled its first two drone aircraft about a year ago, after about three years of development and $3 million in venture investment.

One drone, called the EASE (Extreme Access System for Entry), is designed to easily fly around inside buildings with cameras or other sensors. The other, called PARC (Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications), is designed to hover at altitudes of up to 1,000 feet, acting as a surveillance outpost or communications relay, for example.

Both of the machines and their related systems have been focused initially on government markets, including military and police. There are good reasons for that—CyPhy Works has won some government grants to fuel its R&D, and the federal government has just started allowing tests of drone aircraft in the private sector.

Greiner and others in the drone sector are preparing, however, for regulators to open up more U.S. airspace for broader commercial drone use. She says the new slug of investment cash will help CyPhy Works set up demonstration sites where the PARC drone’s features can be shown.

CyPhy Works' PARC

CyPhy Works’ PARC

If CyPhy can get its drones in the air and operating, Greiner says, the company hopes it might be able to lure outside developers who could help to expand the capabilities of CyPhy Works’ technology for specific industrial or commercial uses.

CyPhy’s central bet involves using a high-tech, ultrathin “microfilament” cable that keeps its drones tethered to power and communications systems, rather than requiring on-board fuel and wireless signals to keep everything connected.

That’s particularly useful in the case of the PARC drone, CyPhy says, because it allows the four-bladed helicopter-like machine to stay aloft around the clock. With a network of hovering sentinels, Greiner says, owners of a fuel refinery or chemical plant could have their own network of low-level satellites to monitor security—something a circling, airplane-like drone couldn’t provide as well.

“When you have a [drone] that just flies out and sees something, that doesn’t get someone sneaking onto your property. That doesn’t get someone violating a safety procedure,” she says. “Satellite systems do wonderful imaging today, but it’s not high-resolution and it’s not real-time.”

We’re still not going to see teams of drones from CyPhy Works or anyone else circling most job sites for a little while. But the FAA, which is the main regulator of the industry, has estimated that some 7,500 commercial drones will be operating at altitudes up to 1,200 feet in the next five years—and CyPhy now has more backing to make its play for a slice of that airspace.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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