Drones distract, drones deliver and drones do battle. But what else can drones do? That was the question facing entrepreneur Christian Sanz when he began building his own drones a few years back, and after exploring various possibilities, including delivery and also simply drawing together audiences of curious spectators, Sanz found a big need drones are perfect for that wasn’t being addressed: data collection. Now, his startup Skycatch has raised a new $13.2 million round of venture funding to support that mission.
Sanz told me in an interview that he clued into the possibility when someone working on a construction site asked him to take some aerial photos of his build while he was showing off his drone to a crowd of gathered spectators. The contractor gave him more work, and offered to pay even though Sanz had volunteered to do it free. There was clearly a need for this kind of unique perspective on construction sites, since usually site planners only get maybe a single flyover of aerial shots once every couple of months, if they’re lucky. What Sanz could provide, via a fleet of drones, was a constantly updated wealth of data about the site as it progresses – changes could be caught early on, avoiding potentially costly mistakes.
It’s not just about catching mistakes, however. It’s also about building a huge wealth of data about a construction project, using input not previously available. Drones with cameras and sensors can collect all kinds of information about what’s going on with a site, and Skycatch is as much about providing sophisticated and powerful access to that data as it is about building and flying the robots that capture it. Sanz says, in fact, that that’s the larger part of their business in terms of future potential, even though they’ve had to build their own specialized hardware, and have even dabbled in building hardware for other companies, too.
The company has a lot of clients already, including Bechtel, Bouygues, Rio Tinto and “many” others who can’t be named because of contract specifications. For these clients, the startup provides drones that can be operated remotely to capture 2D and 3D imaging, but Skycatch is special in that it offers autonomous drones for this purpose; the drones can fly out for missions, then return to a base station landing bad to offload data from the 15GB on board repository and swap out a fresh battery, which is good for around 30 minutes of operation, depending on the wind conditions.
The new funding for Skycatch will go into building out its existing business, but also into an ambitious new plan that would see the startup build new high altitude unmanned gliders that could fly perpetually and gather data on demand in specific locations per client requests. This kind of “aerial imaging on demand” model bears some similarity to the kind of things that Google and Facebook are doing with their high-flying data network UAVs. I asked Sanz what happens when the skies get too busy, and he said that while we’re still far off from that point, in the future companies will likely work together using aerial and satellite imaging and common communications channels to ensure that even above commercial flight altitude, they won’t interfere with one another.
Skycatch combines two things that have immense potential for the future of building businesses – drones and big data, and it does so in a way that companies can see the value of instantly. Whereas before you almost had to wait until your building fell down to figure out that you had a serious issue that could’ve been spotted and resolved early on, now, Skycatch gives you a full, 360-degree view of your project from above, in way that can provide you feedback on your progress almost in real-time. It’s cheesy to say, but the sky really is the limit with this budding business.