Entrepreneurs and investors are betting on a future full of flying robots that can be programmed to do anything from survey crops or wildlife to delivering vaccines to remote villages in Africa.
It may sound a little like something out of an episode of the "The Jetsons," but the reality is the Federal Aviation Administration is required to implement regulations to integrate commercial drones into the national airspace by 2015, meaning flying robots are going to become a lot more common in the U.S.
But entrepreneurs aren't waiting for the FAA deadline before building their start-ups. The moment is too ripe with opportunity to not jump in the commercial drone business now, those in the burgeoning space say.
"It's just one of those moments," said Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, which makes unmanned automated vehicles (UAVS). "It's the economy at scale. Those technologies that used to be incredibly expensive are now very cheap and getting better and faster than any other technology in history."
And while the technology for drones is getting cheaper, the estimates of how much the drone economy could be worth are very high.
In March, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International—the world's largest unmanned systems industry organization—forecast the total domestic economic impact of introducing drones into U.S. airspace by the FAA's 2015 deadline would reach more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025.
With cash like that on the line, it's no wonder start-ups aren't waiting to get in the game.
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According to the report, the two markets where drone technology could make the biggest economic impact are precision agriculture and public safety. These two markets alone make up about 90 percent of the known potential markets for unmanned aircraft systems.
"Drones are so important to the aerospace community because they are basically revitalizing the aerospace industry," said Mary Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I've been forecasting this for years," she said. "People are starting to dream up ways to use these because it's such a great technology and in terms of interesting, who doesn't love flight? And now you can put it in people's hands."
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Anderson founded his company is 2009 while still working as editor of Wired Magazine. However, he said that after raising $5 million in funding from O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV) and True Ventures in November he had to make a change.
"I decided that these things don't happen that often and I decided to go all in," he said.
Since he took over full-time at 3D Robotics, he has been working to make his company's open-source drones more appealing to the masses by making them more user friendly.
"It's like the Apple to Macintosh pivot. We're taking the complexity out of the machine," he said. "Right now, it makes perfect sense to a hobbyist or someone who has flown before, but for someone who hasn't, it's all too complicated."