This Drone-As-A-Service Startup Just Raised $32M

To find buried treasure in the Philippine Jungle, the History Channel first went to North Carolina.

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The network teamed up with Raleigh-based drone tech startup PrecisionHawk to use sensors to cut through the fog and canopy on the jungle floor. And according to to PrecisionHawk’s CEO, Michael Chasen, while the team came up treasureless, it explored areas unable to go by foot.

PrecisionHawk just raised $32 million to help the commercial drone industry — get off the ground. Investors in the round include Millennium Technology Value Partners, Third Point Ventures, Eastward Capital Partners, and others.

The startup, founded in 2010, offers software and hardware to customers across various industries, from agriculture to energy, deploy drones. For example, Precision-Hawk helps manage inventory and costs, and measures the health of electricity distribution lines. It doesn’t just stick to one part of the chain, it goes from consultation to technology.

CEO Chasen explained how the company works on the data collection phase (or, the part that happens when you see a drone flying around in the sky). Using PrecisionHawk hardware and software, an operator can fly drones over a certain area and capture data. It needs to repeat flights, 20 to 40 minutes each. The data, once collected, can help operators make in-field adjustments or corrections.

Beyond work with customers in agriculture, the company pointed to a customer that some find controversial: PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric Co.).

“Drones have enabled PG&E to gain an unparalleled level of data and actionable insights of its assets, while improving safety and creating opportunities for its technicians to be at the forefront of sophisticated drone technology,” Chasen said.

In June, I wrote about how consolidation in the lidar sensor market is upon us. Lidar sensors have long been looked at as an important cog in the autonomous machine market, which includes not just drones but also self-driving cars and ground robots.

At the time, I caught up with Scott Burroughs, co-founder and CEO of Sense Photonics, a startup that builds lidar sensors for robots and autonomous vehicles. He told me that there are about 70 to 80 companies that have attempted to enter the lidar market. He imagines only a handful of lidar companies will be around in a couple years, but for now the bar to enter is lower.

PrecisionHawk offers lidar sensors, but also software and consulting and thus a more holistic experience. That has its challenges and strengths: it differs from a crowd of lidar-focused startups, but it also means that it has to crack the code on the sensor technology in an industry that views it as not just an afterthought.

Bottom line: in just a few years, the FAA imagines that there will be hundreds of thousands of drones flying around us. That’s 823,000 by 2023, to be specific. I imagine we’ll be seeing much more from companies like PrecisionHawk before then.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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