Monday was a turning point for the U.S. drone industry as the Federal Aviation Administration released preliminary details about its plans to require the registration of recreational drones.
On the same day, one of Boston’s pioneering drone companies, CyPhy Works, said it had received FAA clearance to operate one of its drones nationwide. Though CyPhy has been around since 2008, the Boston drone industry as a whole is still fairly young. As a result, we’re just only starting to see what kind of drone technology Boston entrepreneurs are capable of.
With that, here’s a look at the Boston-area’s most interesting drone companies. Not all of them are making drones per se. Some of them are developing technologies that are used in tandem with drones, such as enterprise management systems and online marketplaces that can connect you with drone operators. One of them is even considered the “Uber for drones.”
CyPhy Works (Danvers)
With iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner at the helm, the Danvers, Mass.-based startup has been the highest profile drone company in the Boston area since Greiner started it in 2008. CyPhy has been gaining a lot of traction this year, most recently in the form of a $22 million Series B round led by Bessemer Venture Partners (UPS’ venture capital arm was also an investor, and you can learn more about its partnership with CyPhy here). The startup now has three products: the tethered Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications (PARC) vehicle system, the PocketFlyer and the LVL 1 consumer drone, which made a killing on Kickstarter earlier this year. On Monday, CyPhy made an another important step forward, saying it had received FAA approval for its PARC drone.
The Cambridge-based startup has been dubbed the “Uber for drones”—definitely the easiest way to describe it but perhaps not the best way. As BetaBoston reported this summer, the startup runs an online platform that “connects drone pilots with customers who want surveys, maps, building inspections, and other tasks suited to a drone’s unique perspective,” and it has already launched after receiving FAA approval earlier this year.
Founded by Boston University alums, this Boston startup is developing a patent-pending technology called the Neurala Intelligence Engine that gives drones and other robots “deep autonomy, in which [they] use deep learning perceive their environment and then act,” according to its website. If that isn’t cool enough, consider this: the technology is based on research that was done by the startup for NASA and U.S. Air Force in partnership with the Boston University Neuromorphics Lab. The startup last year raised a $750,000 seed round, which included Silicon Valley investor Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Draper Associates. Its technology is already available in the form of the Roboscope smartphone app that turns the Parrot Jumping MiniDrone into an “attack robot.”
GreenSight Agronomics (Boston)
This Boston startup is developing proprietary cloud and drone technology that helps “golf courses, farms, and property managers [save] $2.8 billion annually through large reductions in water and inputs,” according to its Crunchbase page. The idea is that its drone automatically lifts up every day into the air and takes images of the land and then sends those images to an online platform on a mobile device for automated turf monitoring and analysis. The service, which is expected to launch in May 2016, will be provided through a subscription that is focused on ease-of-use.
Founded by a former Raytheon employee, Ascendr is working on a cloud-based enterprise management system for drones, letting businesses “control their UAS logistics data in order to extend the life of their assets, reduce maintenance costs, and scale their operational cadence without added complexity,” according to its AngelList page. The website says that it is accepting signups for alpha access, but not much is known beyond that at the moment.
Raptor Maps (Cambridge)
Founded by a group of MIT PhD candidates, Raptor Maps won the MIT $100K business competition earlier this year with its drone technology that provide analytics on crops and aims to make agriculture more sustainable. “The amount of cropland in the world is fixed, but the population is growing. With Raptor Maps analytics, we pinpoint crop damage sooner, before pests and diseases can spread,” the startup said earlier this year. “This minimizes total pesticide usage, which increases crop yields and reduces environmental impact.” At the time of winning the MIT prize, it said the money will be used to get its tech in the field sooner. More recently, the startup has making the rounds of conferences, including the EmTech conference in Ecuador.
This Cambridge startup is developing cloud-based software for managing, collaborating on and analyzing video and photo content from drones and other sources, such as GoPro cameras and mobile devices. Back in August, it announced that it had raised a $3.4 million seed round led by CommonAngels Ventures. At the time, the startup said it plans to use the funds to speed up product development and launch a private beta program this fall.
Top Flight Technologies (Malden)
Top Flight Technologies is making a drone called the Airborg H6 1500 that uses a hybrid gasoline-electric engine to stay in the air longer. The Malden company is led by Dr. Long Phan, who served as an initial member of the MIT/Draper Aerial Robotics team and also participated in the world’s first autonomous helicopter takeoff at Disney World’s Epcot Center. According to its website, its product can be used for more than a dozen applications, including advertising, agriculture, energy, humanitarian aid, real estate, transportation and wildlife preservation.
Hydroswarm is one of the top 26 MassChallenge finalists from this year that will compete for its share of $1.5 million in equity-free cash at the startup accelerator’s award ceremonies on Oct. 28. The startup is working on an adaptable, smart drone platform that communicates with underwater, football-sized, data-collecting drones, and it can be used for a number of applications, including environmental monitoring and monitoring for the oil and gas industry. Its founder, MIT PhD student Sampriti Bhattacharyya, was able to pitch her idea at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt event in San Francisco.
This Cambridge startup is developing “the first commercially-available, sonar-based small drone obstacle avoidance system for low-speed and indoor operations,” according to a Kickstarter campaign it ran earlier this year. In other words, it can help your drone avoid bumping into things and potentially kicking the drone-bucket. The startup was founded as a spinoff from Virginia-based drone company Aurora Flight Scienes by Annalisa Weigel, a former MIT professor, the Boston Business Journal reported earlier this year. According to its online store, its eBumper avoidance systems for three models of drones are all sold out at the moment. The startup’s most recent update was in July, when it said its product was being showcased at an Engadget event in Boston.