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commercial drone fund

Airware’s Commercial Drone Fund Invests in Raptor Maps

December 7, 2016

Commercial Drone Fund, a venture capital fund launched by drone software company Airware, has made an undisclosed investment in Raptor Maps, a Cambridge-based company creating a drone-enabled technology platform for farmers.

This funding marks Commercial Drone Fund’s fourth investment, but its first foray into ag-focused drone technologies. Previous investments include drone-enabled data capture and analysis tech creator SkyFutures, drone data analysis platform developer RedBird, and drone video service provider Cape Productions.

Using drones as well as tractor-mounted sensors and software, Raptor Maps’ technology offers precision mapping, analysis, and quality measurement of crops throughout the growing season. According to the company, some specialty crop growers in the US are already employing its technology.

Raptor Maps also allows farmers to perform statistical analysis for A/B testing various inputs. Considering that many farmers are constantly experimenting with new chemicals, fertilizer regimens, seed types, and techniques, this application helps them figure out whether a new approach is actually working.

The company has been recognized by external bodies, taking the grand prize in the 2015 MIT $100k Entrepreneurship Competition and graduating from notable accelerator Y Combinator’s Summer 2016 cohort.

“Until now, drone technology has been more of a curiosity in agriculture,” said Nikhil Vadhavkar, CEO of Raptor Maps, in a recent statement about the funding. “Farmers would receive maps with generic metrics like ‘crop stress,’ but the actionability and ability to calculate a return-on-investment was limited. We are now able to ground truth the drone data and perform statistical analyses to show a farmer the value they are receiving from their practices in absolute, rather than relative, terms.”

The Commercial Drone Fund targets early-stage startups creating technologies that will help commercial drones achieve scale across numerous sectors. It has five key areas in its crosshairs, including sensor hardware, software applications, cloud-based aerial data analysis tools, drone-based services, and industry-specific complete solutions.

Jonathan Downey, founder and CEO of Airware, serves as the fund’s general partner. He has spent 10 years in the drone space, including an academia-based position at MIT, an industry-focused position at Boeing, and a business-focused role as the founder of San Francisco-based Airware.

The fund was raised from a set of undisclosed limited partners, but backers may include traditional VCs, an Airware spokesperson told AgFunderNews by email. Although the main goal of the Commercial Drone Fund is to help accelerate innovation across the drone industry, the fund may also present Airware with some strategic acquisition opportunities as the drone industry involves, added the spokesperson.

In 2015, investment in drones and robotics startups totaled $389 million across 42 deals, representing a 237% increase on 2014 figures.

According to a recent report from RnR market Research, the drone market could reach $3.7 billion in value by 2022. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has also predicted that 80% of these drones will be used in some sort of agricultural application.

Since the Federal Aviation Authority has loosened some of the restrictions on commercial drone operation, the sector’s rapid growth seems to be living up to these projections.

DJI and Epson, for example, have teamed up to create a ‘Google Glass’-type solution for drone pilots. The two are offering an optimized version of the DJI’s app on Epson’s glasses to provide a transparent, heads-up-display to help operators comply with FAA regulations requiring them to keep the device in their visual line of sight (VLOS). Currently, drone photographers must peer down at a smartphone or tablet to view the drone camera feed. This is often difficult in bright sunlight, and unsafely takes the user’s eyes off the craft.

The fervor around drones isn’t unique to the US, either. Toronto-based Deveron, which operates small UAVs for surveying agricultural land and rural areas, raised $800k in a private placement, while Strategic seed fund investor StartupXseed Ventures closed its second undisclosed investment in Indian drone tech startup Aarav Unmanned Systems in recent months.

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