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The UAV Big Tent in 2014

by Andrew Patton

The last time I went to an AUVSI (That’s the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) Unmanned Systems show, it was 2011 and the venue was a convention center in Washington, DC. That made a lot of sense at the time: it was in the backyard of the Pentagon, which was, at the time, the primary customer of most of the vendors at the show.

That’s changing. I returned from Orlando a few weeks ago, where about 600 exhibiting companies converged for the 2014 conference. They ranged from those that you’d expect (Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman), to those you wouldn’t: young, Silicon Valley-esque startups and consumer electronics companies-turned-small-UAV leaders that are heralding a new wave of innovation in what is still a very young and very emergent space.

Technically the AUVSI show is for all unmanned vehicles – aircraft, ground vehicles, and watercraft. But in practice it is dominated by UAVs. In this post I’ll mention a few companies that I view to be potential game-changers in the UAV space.

You see a lot of “grey iron” at these conferences. Very militarized, rugged airframes that are built by companies that have a history of selling to military customers, or would like to start. This is understandable; currently the FAA prohibits commercial operation of UAVs in the National Airspace System (NAS) – or, in other words, the area from zero to 60,000 feet above sea level pretty much everywhere in the United States. So these companies, as you might expect, are “skating to where the puck is.” And they have good reason: the US military alone is expected to purchase $25 billion worth of UAVs and support systems from 2010-2015.

But the real interesting thing at the show was the handful of companies that seem to be “skating to where the puck will be.” These are companies that either already offer or are building products that are aimed at where they believe the market will be in 12-24 months (and not before!):

DroneDeploy – a small San Francisco-based team that was launched out of AngelPad. DroneDeploy is creating a platform to manage multiple UAV assets. Given that the industry is currently just trying to solve the problem of selling single UAVs, the problem that DroneDeploy solves is not necessarily on the top of customers’ minds. But I believe it will be tomorrow, and when it is, DroneDeploy’s cloud-based platform will help customers manage a fleet of drones from anywhere in the world.

Skycatch – Skycatch did not exhibit at the AUVSI show but it is a forward thinking, San Francisco-based company that is attacking an often overlooked problem with unmanned vehicles: there may not be pilots on board, but there are still pilots and many ground personnel involved in making these things work. For example, to conduct 24×7 operations with 4 MQ-1 Predator airframes, the USAF requires a team of approximately 80 people. Commercial operations won’t support this level of staffing; streamlined, fully-automated systems will evolve to meet these needs cost effectively, and that is what Skycatch is providing: a fully automated system, including airframes as well as a ground “hangar” that services the drones between missions.

Near Earth Autonomy – while DroneDeploy and SkyCatch are more typical of Silicon Valley startups, in the sense that they take well-understood technologies and integrate them to produce systems that alleviate emergent customer pain points, Near Earth Autonomy, whose founders hail from Carnegie Mellon, is a company that is leveraging the deep technology experience of its founders to solve the difficult problem of allowing UAVs to land and takeoff in highly dynamic environments. At the show, NEA showed videos of its LIDAR-based solution in operation on the Office of Naval Research’s AACUS (Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System) program, where it responds to a request from a troop in the field to land supplies at a specific location. NEA’s technology, which effectively allows UAVs to make safe departures/approaches in dynamic environments (i.e. avoiding powerlines, trees, cars, etc.), will be key to the widespread, safe integration of UAVs into commercial airspace.

Parrot – the only large company I’m including here has its roots in handsfree car kits and other consumer electronics products. Parrot is no stranger to UAVs, and over time its products have moved more from seeming like toys to actual enterprise-grade offerings. Indeed, this year its Sensefly subsidiary announced new products targeted at business users. And, of course, its integration of an Oculus Rift-style VR headset with a Bebop drone (demoable at the show) was an awesome toy to play with, and probably the future of remotely human-piloted aircraft.

These companies are seeing increasing traction: DroneDeploy recently announced its Explorer Program for early customers; Skycatch just received a $13M+ in venture funding, and Near Earth Autonomy continues to demo its solutions in increasingly difficult conditions. Parrot is already publicly traded on the Euronext Paris.

I would expect continued innovation from these players along the vectors they have already established. The FAA has just announced the first (admittedly, still quite limited) approval for commercial drone operations in the NAS) and intends to publish a proposed rule for sub-55 lb. UAVs later this year. If the FAA puts in place reasonable regulations to help UAVs safely integrate with manned aviation in a timely fashion, we may see the market for UAVs spark with latent demand. And this could be akin to opening a door to massive innovation and growth in not only the UAV market, but the unmanned vehicle market as a whole.

Keep an eye on the skies…

Andrew Patton is Director at GrowthPoint Technology Partners. GrowthPoint Technology Partners is not directly affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this piece. Further, this piece is not to be considered investment advice or research on the named companies.