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Commercial drone market ready for takeoff

For Andy Putch, drones aren't just fun. They're vehicles that will redefine how American companies do business.

The 22-year-old is CEO of FreeSkies, a start-up that creates software applications for drones. The FreeSkies app, which launches in October, allows operators to program a flight route. The drone, flying on autopilot, then captures high-resolution photos, videos and data.

Putch thinks the technology will transform whole industries, from agriculture to oil and gas.

"You can automate the entire process," Putch said. "You can have a drone, program a set route, and go and collect data in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost."

There are a number of companies now building around the drone ecosystem. Among them are Airware, which develops software, hardware and cloud services; Skydio, which builds drone navigation systems using onboard sensors; and Percepto, which is a computer vision platform designed specifically for drones. (Percepto counts Richard Parsons and Mark Cuban among its investors).

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Eric Cheng of drone maker DJI said the enthusiasm surrounding the technology isn't just about the consumer market, but also the real opportunities for businesses. His company has embarked on its first effort in the commercial space, a drone called the M100.

A drone takes flight amid skyscrapers and with an app from start-up FreeSkies. Its software allows operators to program a flight route and captures high-resolution photos and video.
Source: FreeSkies
A drone takes flight amid skyscrapers and with an app from start-up FreeSkies. Its software allows operators to program a flight route and captures high-resolution photos and video.

"We noticed in the consumer world that our products are actually being used for commercial applications," said Cheng. "The M100 is meant to be a developer platform. Companies like FreeSkies can write against a drone platform that they don't have to build themselves."

For all the interest and excitement, there are potential hurdles for the drone market, particularly new regulations. Right now, if a company wants to use a drone it needs authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. (The rules are different for hobbyists.)

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The FAA has proposed new regulations. If they pass, drones would be limited to flying during daytime hours, would have to stay below 500 feet, and would have to remain within sight of the operator. The FAA could publish these final regulations next year.

Despite such possible challenges, corporations are getting onboard with this technology. For instance, General Electric is an Airware customer and investor. Archer Daniels Midland is now testing unmanned aerial vehicles to locate and calculate crop damage.

Those working in the drone industry also have a lot of fans in Silicon Valley. So far this year, drone start-ups have already raised nearly $200 million in VC funding, according to CB Insights. That's a more than 60 percent jump over the total raised last year.

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