Startups dealing in the world of drones have been given a boost today with the news that Sky-Futures, which flies drones around oil rigs and gas pipelines, has raised $3.87 million (£2.5m) in a Series A from London-based venture fund MMC Ventures. The funding is believed to be Europe’s largest-ever drone investment to date.
Although it’s been running since 2009, Sky-Futures has grown in recent years to work with over 30 of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world. It operates in the North Sea, the Middle East, South East Asia and North Africa. The company also has an office in Houston, Texas, to serve clients in the Gulf of Mexico, having been one of the first companies to receive FAA regulatory approval to operate in the US. Their drones collect HD video, stills and thermal imagery data, which is analysed and delivered to their clients
This investment follows two significant seed rounds, which included prominent angel investors Nick Robertson (CEO of ASOS) and Jon Kamaluddin (former International Director of ASOS).
Co-founder James Harrison got the idea for a drone-based venture while serving in Iraq, and in 2009 co-founded Sky Futures with Chris Blackford and Nick Rogers.
Harrison has said that he hopes the UK government will push the tech innovation around drones and help with tax breaks that support the industry, as well as putting in clear regulation.
Britain is fast becoming a haven for drone startups, due to favourable regulation. A House of Lords report last month said the sector could create 150,000 jobs in Europe by 2050.
While in the US, the commercial use of drones is banned, in the UK it is permitted, subject to licensing and safety requirements set down by the UK Civil Aviation Authority. As of now, over 500 non-military entities are licensed to fly drones in the UK. In 2012 that figure was 120. People buying ’toy’ drones do not need a licence but have to fly them in safe areas and keep in visual contact, as drones are still considered to be piloted aircraft.
Drone technology is being boosted by Facebook’s involvement, which has tested its first solar-powered drone since its acquisition of the Somerset manufacturer Ascenta. These are designed to beam Internet access into rural areas. Meanwhile Google has also acquired a US drone maker. And Amazon has been approved to test its drone delivery services long as the machines fly below 400 feet and do not exceed 100mph.
In the UK, former Hailo Taxi app co-founder Jay Bregman has created Verifly, a new startup that develops verification and control systems for unmanned flying vehicles, allowing drones to be traced and their owners identified. It’s raised £1.4 million of investment from Dublin-based Irelandia Aviation, the low-cost airline developer run by Declan Ryan, of the family behind the budget carrier Ryanair, TAG, and Prospect Insurance, the insurance broker that sits within Lloyd’s of London.