DroneExtra: DJI Raises $75 M; New FAA Initiatives

Big Silicon Valley venture firm Accel Partners has placed a hefty bet on the potential of commercial drones, and it’s one of the VC’s largest funding commitments to date. Accel announced a $75 million investment today in Shenzhen, China-based drone manufacturer DJI, a major player in the fast-developing industry.

The big DJI funding news came as the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled two new programs to advance the use of consumer and commercial drones without endangering the safety of the national airspace system. The FAA has formed partnerships with three industry firms to see how well commercial drones can operate under real-world conditions as they gather news footage and inspect crops and railroad lines.

The agency also rolled out the smartphone app it’s developing, B4UFLY, designed to help hobbyists fly their recreational drones and model aircraft without violating FAA rules that protect the zones around airports and other sites.

Investors and startups have been leaping into drone development while the FAA has been mobilizing recently to create flight rules that can accommodate the needs of both consumers and companies. Businesses foresee a broad range of potential uses for the small aircraft, which can be equipped with cameras, sensors, and Internet connections.

DJI and Accel said in their announcement today that they plan to work together to accelerate DJI’s global expansion and catalyze innovation in the unmanned aircraft market.

“We aspire for DJI to offer a platform for unbounded creativity and exploration across areas as diverse as filmmaking, agriculture, conservation, search and rescue, energy infrastructure, mapping, and more,” said Frank Wang, DJI’s CEO and founder. “Accel’s experience backing some of the world’s most iconic technology companies as they built communities around their products will be useful for us as we expand as a platform for innovation.”

The two companies plan to announce further details of their partnership shortly.

“DJI is quickly establishing itself as the owner of the world’s most powerful robotics platforms,” said Sameer Gandhi, partner at Accel. “The democratization of the skyways is well underway with affordable access to UAVs allowing people and companies to rethink what’s possible.”

Accel had already dipped a toe into the drone arena when it invested $3 million in Skydio in January. Menlo Park, CA-based Skydio is developing navigation software to help drones avoid obstacles and fly through unpredictable terrain.

Meanwhile, the FAA is working with three industry partners to assess the use of drones in urban and rural settings. As part of the new initiative under the agency’s Pathfinder program, news organization CNN is testing news-gathering drones within populated areas—where pilots must operate the small aircraft within their own line of sight.

The two other partnerships will gauge whether drones can be operated safely in more rural locations when they’re not fully in the pilot’s field of view. Raleigh, NC-based PrecisionHawk will test its small unmanned aircraft in agricultural operations. BNSF Railway will use drones to inspect railroad lines.

The FAA has been opening avenues for commercial drone operations since it issued a set of proposed rules in February. The new regulations, when finalized, will create a framework for the legal operation of both commercial and consumer drones.

In the meantime, the agency plans to start beta testing its consumer drone navigation app B4UFLY later this summer, and release it to the general public several months later, for iOS devices only at first. The agency plans to create an Android version in the future.

“We want to make sure hobbyists and modelers know where it is and isn’t okay to fly,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement announcing the app’s development.

Startups including El Segundo, CA-based AirMap have already launched their own drone navigation apps. AirMap includes both federal zones where flight is restricted, as well as zones protected by local government agencies. AirMap co-founder Gregory McNeal told Xconomy recently that he’d heard reports that the FAA would soon debut its own app, and speculated that AirMap might be able to incorporate the FAA data from the agency’s app. The FAA could not be reached immediately for comment on details about B4UFLY and competing apps.

Huerta, in the FAA statement, said B4UFLY would serve consumers best.

“While there are other apps that provide model aircraft enthusiast with various types of data, we believe B4UFLY has the most user-friendly interface and the most up-to-date information.”

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