With $30M in Tank, UAV Maker 3D Robotics Gets Ready for Take-Off
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San Diego Venture Group’s 2013 Venture Summit, Anderson identified agriculture as “a perfect market” for 3D Robotics’ commercial entry—with the lowest regulatory barrier and highest economic benefit.
The regulatory barrier is significant, because the FAA has blocked the commercial use of UAVs in domestic airspace until new rules can be adopted, which is expected to take at least two more years. But Anderson said in his San Diego presentation that drones operating under 400 feet on private property would not pose a regulatory hurdle because it would be considered non-commercial when used by farmers on their own property.
A drone flying a programmed flight path over a farm every day—and taking digital photos at pre-determined points—would provide high-resolution images that farmers could use to chart plant growth and improve their crop management and production, Anderson said. Infrared and near-infrared imaging would highlight early distress or damage from drought, blight, or infestation that could be spot-treated—avoiding the standard and widespread use of fungicides, insecticides, and other chemicals as the primary way to prevent crop damage.
In his presentation, Anderson also showed images of vineyards in Northern California that clearly showed vines growing more robustly in certain drainages, where the soil is richer. During the grape harvest, digital mapping could be used to identify and “geo-fence” such areas so those grapes would be picked and processed separately instead of being blended indiscriminantly with the rest of the estate.
In the company’s statement, Anderson said, “The opportunity to bring ‘big data’ to agriculture through low-cost automated aerial crop surveys could be a game-changer for both farming and the UAV industry alike. Adding UAVs to the precision agriculture toolkit of a 21st Century farmer gives them the power to use imaging data to not only increase yield, but decrease water use and the chemical load in both food and environment.”
With the company’s move into agriculture, 3D Robotics recently introduced an advanced quadcopter with GPS-guided autonomous capabilities, and that doesn’t require DIY assembly. The Iris was designed as a ready-to-fly, fully autonomous UAV capable of recording high-definition aerial video, and can be controlled by an Android tablet or phone, or through a nine-channel radio-control transmitter. (The Pixhawk, an advanced autopilot system designed by the PX4 open-hardware project and manufactured by 3D Robotics, will be available later this month for $200.)
Anderson sees other commercial applications for drones in similar types of aerial surveys. For example, as the Financial Times recently noted, ConocoPhillips tested a Boeing drone over Alaska last month as part of an FAA assessment of civilian UAV technology in domestic airspace. Drones flying near offshore drilling sites also could be used to monitor ice flows and whale movements, as well as reindeer herds and other wildlife around inland drilling sites and pipeline routes.
A trade group for the UAV industry estimates that more than 70,000 jobs would be created in the first three years after the FAA allows commercial drones to fly in U.S. domestic airspace. The economic impact is estimated at more than $13.6 billion—and the prospects are even bigger in international markets.
In his DIY Drone post, Anderson concludes: “I feel we’re like the PC industry in 1983. As an industry, we’ve come close to taking drones from industrial equipment or hobbyist gear (from the mainframes to the Apple II of the late 70s) to the first Macintosh, making them consumer friendly and easy to use. Now that drones are not just for the technically sophisticated anymore, it’s time to find out what they can really do, by putting them in the hands of regular people, from GoPro owners to farmers, and see how they use ‘anywhere, anytime access to the skies’ to discover new applications and markets, much as we did with computers after the original IBM PC and the Mac.