SkySpecs Snags $8M to Expand Drone-Powered Turbine Inspection Service

Drone startup SkySpecs announced this week that it has raised an $8 million Series B funding round. The investment in the Ann Arbor, MI-based company was co-led by Germany’s Statkraft Ventures, the Capital Midwest Fund, and UL Ventures, and also included contributions from returning investors such as Huron River Ventures and Venture Investors.

A lot has happened since we last caught up with Danny Ellis, SkySpec’s co-founder and CEO, in 2015. Back then, the company had just raised a $3 million Series A round and was preparing to launch its drone inspection service. Today, the 19-person company is thriving with a business devoted to inspecting huge wind turbines in 20 states, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Denmark. The company, which was founded in 2012, says it is the fastest growing inspection service in the wind sector.

The key to SkySpecs’ technology is its ability to automate the inspection of wind turbines and other energy infrastructure. Because of the turbines’ massive size, it’s expensive and impractical to send human beings up to check on them. SkySpecs places an unmanned, autonomous drone at the base of the turbine; once a human operator hits the “go” button, the drone flies around and gets a 3D picture of all sides of the turbine’s giant blades, collecting data as it goes, and then powers itself off when the job is done. Within 48 hours, that information is automatically analyzed, annotated, and reported back to the customer, who  can then view the data through an online portal.

Ellis claims that so far, SkySpecs is the only automated inspection service of its kind in the market. The company officially launched its commercial product last year, and since then, Ellis says it has worked with “lots of large owners and operators” in the wind energy sector, but he couldn’t disclose any names. Customers sign a contract outlining the scope of the work they want SkySpecs to do, and then the company charges them on a per turbine/per inspection basis.

Last February, SkySpecs announced a collaboration with Siemens to refine SkySpecs’ technology for both onshore and offshore applications. The two companies also worked on developing maintenance models that were more preventive, where SkySpecs could suggest to customers when and how their turbines might eventually fail before it happens.

“We’re trying to catch defects quicker,” Ellis explains. “We want to maximize annual energy production and reduce the number of repairs. It’s more than inspections—we’re pushing to make sense of the data. We’re moving into more predictive stuff, which was impossible to do with only one year of deployment data.”

Ellis says lead investor Statkraft Ventures cold-called him after hearing about the company’s work with Siemens, and they stayed in touch. When SkySpecs began raising capital a few months ago, it seemed like a good fit.

“They understand the space and the maintenance needs for the energy industry,” he says. “With the wind market in Europe being so huge, they can really help us expand internationally.” As of now, 80 percent of the company’s business is in the United States, although SkySpecs is licensed to fly drones in many places across the world. In 2017, there were north of 314,000 commercial wind turbines worldwide; Ellis says operating and maintaining those turbines represents a $10 billion annual market. SkySpecs plans to spend its new investment on expanding its business and helping customers make better decisions faster. The company is also planning to do more hiring.

“I think we’ll be kept pretty busy with just the international expansion,” he says, adding that Europe, South America, and Australia are at the top of the list of potential targets.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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