With $30M in Tank, UAV Maker 3D Robotics Gets Ready for Take-Off
After raising $30 million in a Series B round of venture funding announced last week, 3D Robotics is ready to really get its drone business off the ground.
The four-year-old startup, based in San Diego (headquarters and engineering), Berkeley, CA, (business and sales), and Tijuana (manufacturing), designs and manufactures aircraft that use open source software for autonomous flight. After moving into a new manufacturing facility in Tijuana, CEO Chris Anderson says 3D Robotics is entering a new era of commercialization for a company that was previously focused on hobbyists.
The Boulder, CO-based Foundry Group (a new investor) co-led the round with existing investor True Ventures. Foundry partner Jason Mendelson is joining 3D Robotics’ board of directors. Existing investors O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and SK Ventures also joined in the new round, which brings the company’s total venture funding to $36 million, according to Anderson.
“We think that robots have already taken over the world,” Foundry’s Mendelson wrote in a recent e-mail. The venture firm also has invested in two Boulder-based robotics startups that are more focused on having fun than doing work: Orbotix, which has developed a robotic ball that can be controlled by Android or iOS-based smartphones and tablets; and Modular Robotics, a spinout from Carnegie Mellon University that makes modular robotic construction blocks for kids.
3D Robotics, on the other hand, has been shifting its focus to developing new commercial markets for working robots. “We’ve been studying the UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] market for a while and we feel that 3DR is the unquestioned leader in the UAV space and that UAVs are ready to do real work,” Mendelson says. “The technology and community they’ve created is incredibly impressive.”
And “Yes,” Mendelson adds, “I’ll be coming to San Diego more. Looking forward to it!”
When Chris Anderson resigned last November as the editor of Wired magazine to take the helm at 3D Robotics, the company was focused mostly on serving a community of DIY enthusiasts that has grown to nearly 44,000 members today, Anderson says. As he wrote in a recent blog at DIY Drone, “3D Robotics was still selling mostly electronics, essentially bare boards and ‘bags of parts’ kits, much like our role models at Sparkfun and Adafruit.”
Since then, he adds, “Our mission over the past nine months has been to professionalize the company and our products, and although that’s far from done we’ve made a lot of progress. On the company side, this meant new websites, ecommerce systems, improvements in customer support (still a work in progress but we’ve shortened response times and moved to Zendesk to track issues better), and most importantly, the opening of our big new manufacturing facility in Tijuana.”
As part of its new round of funding, 3D Robotics says it plans to expand its development and deployment of advanced unmanned aircraft applications.
As an aside, one of the challenges in covering 3D Robotics is that Chris Anderson ranks among the leading journalists specializing in science and technology. Of all the media reports about the company’s new funding round, Anderson provides his own best explanation of how 3D Robotics has evolved and where it’s headed in his DIY Drones blog.
He says he’s committed to use funding from this latest round to make the DIY community even better. “As we have from the start,” he writes, “we’ll continue doing what we can to help people here help each other, following the lead of open source models from Linux to Adafruit and our original mentors at Arduino.”
But Anderson is clearly setting his sights higher.
In a presentation four months ago in San Diego, during the 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.
“In short, this is just the beginning. I couldn’t be more thrilled to embark on our next chapter.”
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