With the recent announcement of the GoPro Karma, high-performance flying drones are inching ever closing to the average consumer—but they’re not purely designed for fun. Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to deliver packages, shoot high-flying video, or help with agriculture and construction needs, and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
Several companies in and around Chicago are helping to push the technology, innovating either with the hardware itself or setting new standards for how it can be used in various industries. Here’s a look at some of the local startups making waves with flying drones.
Led by University of Illinois professors, Reconstruct uses drones to capture aerial footage of construction sites and creates detailed 3D models for clients. By monitoring the progress from the sky, the company can help highlight problems along the way. Reconstruct’s technology helped the Sacramento Kings build their new NBA stadium, and the company recently raised $850,000 in funding in a round led by Serra Ventures.
Colin Hinkle’s production company received the FAA’s first commercial exemption in Illinois, as well as approval for closed-set filming. Soaring Badger uses an array of drones—from DJI’s Phantom 4 to its M600, which can haul heavy movie cameras—to shoot aerial video for film and TV. Hinkle does local work for ABC 7 and CBS 2, and was the first in the nation to film a live local news drone shoot when they shared construction footage of The 606 before it opened.
IFM doesn’t love the drone tag: “We build high-performance flying robots,” says CEO Marc Gyongyosi. But whatever you call them, there’s no doubt that they can have big benefits: his company’s creations fly around warehouses and keep track of inventory. Retailers and manufacturers lose big bucks on missing inventory, but rather than scramble about the warehouse, IFM’s robots can zip around the spaces and find misplaced goods.
Born out of Northwestern University’s innovation hub, The Garage, Eighty Nine Robotics made a splash on Indiegogo this spring by raising more than $58,000 (253% of the goal) for Rook. Its first commercial product, Rook is a flying drone you can fly remotely using a smartphone. The device can be used to monitor your home from afar, check in on pets, and other needs, and it’ll land on a charging pad once finished. The funding campaign lists a December delivery target.
5. Kairos Air Inc.
Also out of Northwestern is Kairos Air Inc. (formerly Kitty Hawk Air), a company building autonomous quadcopters to carry people—essentially a flying car. Back in June, the company had a 2023 release target in mind, and recently, the company began a NASA-funded research project alongside GM, Northwestern, and Duke University. Kairos has also met with the FAA to discuss its concept and is raising money from investors, as well as presenting in the Hello Tomorrow Challenge in Paris next month.
Based in Aurora, Mad Lab Industries produces and sells an array of custom aerial drones for both personal and commercial purposes. You can buy a small drone, a kit, or parts for your own amusement, while companies seeking an aerial advantage can order heartier offerings like the Heavylift Y6. Mab Lab also creates custom solutions for bespoke commercial needs.