The drone race is on

It’s been a little more than a year since I wrote “Are Drones A Fad Or Here For Good?” And what a year it’s been. We’ve seen an increase in drone investments on a huge scale, many new entrants into the field and more mainstream companies getting into the marketplace.

So, no, drones are not a fad — they’re here for good. Here are a few examples of why this trend is here to stay.

Consumer Drones  

Consumers embraced drones in a big way this past holiday season. The FAA estimated that $1 million in drones would be sold during the 2015 holiday season. Drone sales went from 200,000 to around 1 million per year, with DJI taking the lion’s share of sales. The 2016 drone race is officially on, with other leading contenders like Parrot, EHang and 3DR remaining close in the running.

Parrot leads the market of mini drones, and specializes in safety and mobile app integration. 3DR continues to work hard with new applications for construction and mining. A brand new entrant, Zero Zero, has just raised $25 million for its flying camera drone, which goes to show there is demand for new and innovative drones.

Drone startups

In spite of significant challenges, the drone startup space is seeing rapid growth as the fledgling market begins to take shape. Getting a drone company off the ground from a high-quality Kickstarter video to a real, working prototype is hard, and, with a few notable exceptions, many companies are taking longer than expected to get to market. Vantage Robotics is on track to ship their signature flying robot, Snap Drone, this spring.  

Many, many more consumer drone companies were born this year, mainly in China, hoping to take some market share from DJI — estimated to be around 70 percent of the market. Yuneec is a leading contender with some high-quality drones — notably the Typhoon and Tornado series. Several new American companies are set to impact the commercial drone space in the coming months — with Airware and CyPhy leading the charge for new drone hardware startups.  

They promised us flying cars

This is the dream of millions of commuters, that one day they can order an Uber Drone, and it will pick them up at home and deliver them to work. There are now five companies in the race to transport people in “drone-like” machines. Volocopter of Germany just successfully flew their CEO in a drone, which makes for very interesting viewing. Zee Aero is still building their stealth manned electric drone out of Mountain View. Terrafugia from Boston is working on their flying car, EHang unveiled their UAV at CES this year, but this machine has a long way to go before it can actually fly and Joby Aviation in Santa Cruz, California is working on a four-seater flying drone.

Big data and drones

As the number of drones in the air increases, so does the need for data crunching. More “big data for drone” companies are jumping into the space. Commercial drones are simplifying data capture for the agriculture, construction, exploration, mining, real estate and many other industries. Lots of new companies are on hand to help manage that data, namely DroneDeploy, Skycatch, PrecisionHawk, Sky-Futures and Redbird.  

All the ingredients are in place to ensure that drones will continue to get better, faster, safer and cheaper.

DroneDeploy is building a SaaS platform that lets anyone with a common drone and a free app start collecting data in minutes. The app will set a flight path, take pictures then relay that data to the cloud. The platform then crunches the data and gives you data on volumetrics, terrain models and 3D models, and all of this is done in close to real time.

PrecisionHawk is developing software that makes flight and mapping analysis faster and cheaper than using a traditional plane aimed at the agriculture industry.  

Measure has originated the first drone franchise business model this year. Drones are also seeing great advancements for sense-and-avoid technology, which is critical for growth and expansion. And FLIR partnered with Movidius to bring us a small lightweight camera, the Boson Thermal Camera, that can be carried on a drone.

Velodyne LiDAR has developed new Puck sensors capable of processing several data streams at once in real time. This opens a new range of possibilities for mapping, 3D modeling, data collection and aerial data management across the commercial drone industry.

Drones become mainstream

Venture capitalists invested $450 million in 74 drone deals last year, a four-fold jump compared with $111 million in 2014, according to CB Insights of New York. Google, Amazon and Facebook are all building drones. Maersk successfully completed the first-ever drone delivery to a tanker off the coast of Denmark this year, pushing the focus to reducing costs for shipping, inspections and delivery.

With more drones in the air, there is a huge need for platforms to keep drones out of the way. New startups are being created that plan to do just that. Gryphon System is building a platform to combat aerial threats, and there are a few stealth startups aimed at helping the police remove drones that should not be there.

What about the law?

There is no doubt that over the last year, industry advocacy has made a large impact on Congress, which now more than ever recognizes the immense potential economic and consumer benefits of UAS and the need for laws that will enable its growth in a safe and timely manner.

The latest legislation directs the FAA to create a pathway for companies who plan to use small UAS to carry and deliver goods; accelerates the design, testing and implementation of a low-altitude unmanned traffic management system (UTM); and creates a micro UAS classification for the more efficient certification of small UAS for commercial operations.

The Senate moved ahead with a more ambitious UAS subtitle that includes all the provisions above, as well as a federal provision to ensure a nationwide safety standard, a strong endorsement of beyond visual line of sight and nighttime operations, and broader UAS access to unlicensed spectrum.

So, all the ingredients are in place to ensure that drones will continue to get better, faster, safer and cheaper, and there is a healthy marketplace to consume the drones. Silicon Valley is still leading the way  to create layers of companies to service the needs of these new consumers and commercial applications. Drones are definitely here to stay, and it’s only a matter of time before they’ll become a central part of our daily lives.

The author is the creator of the Drones Data X Conference