As FAA OKs Commercial Drones, 3D Robotics Aims for Blue Sky Market

The largest U.S. maker of lightweight, multi-rotor drones and unmanned aerial systems is looking to substantially expand its commercial business—targeting companies that want to use drones to inspect railways, monitor construction sites, and for all sorts of other things.

After raising $50 million late last month, 3D Robotics is at a watershed moment made possible by the FAA, which is now allowing small-drone commercial operations in the United States for the first time, according to Andrew “Max” Maximow, the company’s San Diego-based director of client services. Anticipating the opportunity, the Berkeley, CA-based company has expanded to 300 employees, and rearranged some of its operations in San Diego, Tijuana, and Austin, TX.

Rules for the use of large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in U.S. airspace have been in place for years, allowing remotely operated flights by certain agencies and qualifying universities for such duties as environmental monitoring and disaster relief. The U.S. Border Patrol, for example, has been routinely flying General Atomics’ Predator along the U.S. border with Mexico for at least a decade.

Now, under a proposal unveiled in mid-February, the FAA has drafted a new “framework of regulations” for the commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Before the regulations are finalized, though, the agency has been testing the water, so to speak, by creating an exemption that allows the commercial use of small drones in civil airspace on a case-by-case basis.

The FAA says more than 650 petitions for such exemptions have been filed over the past 10 months.

So far, the agency has granted at least 48 requests, including a Tucson, AZ, realtor who wants to fly a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter to provide aerial footage of local real estate listings, and an application from Illinois’ Commonwealth Edison, which plans to use a DJI Innovations S900 to monitor electric transmission lines and distribution systems. On Monday, State Farm announced it is the first insurer to get FAA authorization to operate unmanned aerial systems for commercial use. The Bloomington, IL-based insurer plans to use drones to assess customer claims of roof damage and in natural disasters.

Andrew "Max" Maximo

Andrew “Max” Maximow

The FAA also has approved requests to use drones in closed-set filming for the motion picture and television industry, and for use in agricultural surveys and mapping. Only certified pilots can operate the drones under the FAA’s special authorization, which sets a variety of other restrictions on commercial, small drone operations.

At 3D Robotics, Maximow said an initial focus on agricultural uses for drones has given way to a surprising array of opportunities in unexpected markets. Last week, for example, the FAA approved requests from the BNSF Railroad and Los Angeles-based Build Imagery to use drones made by 3D Robotics.

The Texas-based BNSF Railroad approached 3D Robotics “out of the blue,” Maximow said, for help in using drones to conduct regular railway infrastructure inspections. The railroad, which operates the second-largest rail network in North America, wants to use 3DRobotics’ new Spektre industrial multi-rotor drone and two models from Germany’s AirRobot to conduct regular inspections of railway infrastructure and rights of way.

“I think they looked to us as an innovation partner to meet their needs and requirements,” Maximow said. Federal regulations mandate weekly inspections that are currently done by employees in railway-mounted vehicles, and Maximow said, “They need that eye in the sky to get their employees off the track.”

At the end of February, 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson offered a sneak peek of the Spektre, which is still under development. With a lightweight carbon-fiber frame, the Spektre weighs less than 20 pounds and can be outfitted with as many as eight propellers. It is intended to serve as a multi-function “truck” in a variety of heavy-duty roles, Maximow said.

The petition filed by Build Imagery was unknown to 3D Robotics until the FAA approved it on March 11th, Maximo said. The firm proposes to use a 3D Robotics Iris+ and DJI Inspire 1 to shoot aerial photos of construction job sites for the architectural, engineering, and construction industries.

Such projects enable 3D Robotics to demonstrate the versatility of the company’s open platform technology, which consists of three primary elements: the aerial vehicle itself, on-board mobile technology, and cloud-based services like data storage.

In recent months, 3D Robotics also has been gradually consolidating its core engineering R&D and software development in Berkeley, CA. Some employees in San Diego, which was once designated as the company’s R&D and engineering center, were able to move to Berkeley, Maximow said. But Tim McConnell, who was the vice president of engineering in San Diego, left 3D Robotics in February. (He recently joined MicroPower Technologies, a San Diego-based maker of solar-powered, wireless security cameras.)

Manufacturing is still done in Tijuana, and the company’s distribution and customer services team remains in San Diego, Maximow said. “It wasn’t a major reorganization sort of thing,” he explained. “We just kind of tweaked it.”

The changes, along with the $50 million in additional funding, have put 3D Robotics in an ideal position to take advantage of the new openings in commercial markets the FAA is unlocking. The fact that San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) led the recent C round of funding is a bonus, Maximow added, “because it aligns really well with our mobility strategy.”

He confirmed that 3D Robotics intends to include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor and other products in their drones. “But in a spirit of openness, we’ll be working with a lot of products,” he added, including Intel’s Edison processor. By developing auto-pilot software that emphasizes interoperability through an open-platform strategy, 3D Robotics says it can build and tailor its drones to meet specific industrial requirements and execute specific tasks.

Or as Maximow put it, “We want to be the Android of drones.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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