Business

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Drone companies entering Wild West phase

David Avery and Jovan Tanasijevic of the Somerville photography firm Above Summit, with an eight-rotor drone made by DJI. It sells for about $2,300.

Scott Kirsner/globe staff

David Avery and Jovan Tanasijevic of the Somerville photography firm Above Summit, with an eight-rotor drone made by DJI. It sells for about $2,300.

Andrew Kehlenbeck pulls up a shirtsleeve and exposes a few linear scars on his forearm. They’re slashes from the plastic propeller of a small drone — a very modern sort of workplace injury.

Kehlenbeck is cofounder and lead engineer at Panoptes Systems in Cambridge, and he is designing a safety system to keep unmanned aircraft from hitting walls, ceilings, trees, and people. Panoptes is just one of the local companies hoping to benefit from a soaring hobbyist drone market and an expected surge in sales to businesses.

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Last year, funding for peacetime drone startups topped $100 million, according to the research firm CB Insights. But it’s an industry still in the Wild West phase, waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt rules to allow the commercial use of drones. The FAA, which bans businesses from deploying drones, in February proposed regulations to govern their use; they won’t go into effect for at least two years, however.

That hasn’t stopped companies like Above Summit , a Somerville photography and videography business, from flying drones for hire — most recently to examine snow loads on the roofs of city-owned buildings.

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“We’re not trying to be cowboys, and we don’t want to come across as combative,” says David Avery, Above Summit’s director of communications. “But legislation is lagging behind.”

One of the first local companies to build drones — or what it terms “flying robots” — is CyPhy Works of Danvers, launched in 2008. Chief executive Helen Greiner, a founder of iRobot Corp., initially won a $100,000 government grant to design aircraft that could fly outdoors and indoors, “to aid in hostage situations, search and rescue, fire fighting, and armed standoffs,” according to the grant application.

The company is now marketing two drones tethered by a thin “microfilament” cable to a controller. The cable allows the drones to send down high-definition video that can’t easily be intercepted, and it sends up power, so they don’t need to land for a battery swap. (Most battery-powered drones only fly for 10 to 20 minutes.)

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One of the drones, the PARC, is like a low-level satellite system, using four rotors to hover at up to 500 feet. “At a construction or mining site, you can have eyes permanently up,” Greiner says. “Maybe you are monitoring progress, safety, or theft. It can be watching if you expect shipments to be coming in, or construction to be going at a certain pace, or boats to be coming into a port.” Eventually, Greiner expects the drones to be able to keep score on all that activity without having the video viewed by a human.

The other CyPhy craft, the Pocket Flyer, is about the size of a salad plate, carrying six tiny cameras to give it a 360-degree view of the world around it. Last year, CyPhy landed a grant from the Air Force to continue developing Pocket Flyer for uses like inspecting tunnels for improvised explosive devices, or getting into buildings blocked by rubble.

A Malden company, Top Flight Technologies , plans to start shipping a craft called the Airborg later this year. It uses a hybrid gasoline-electric engine to stay in the air longer; chief operating officer John Polo says it will have a range of 100 miles, by using the gasoline engine to keep the on-board batteries charged. In the event it runs out of gas, it still has 10 minutes of battery life to land.

Because of the restrictions on commercial use of drones here, Polo says he expects the first Airborgs to be sold outside the country, primarily for agriculture or pipeline inspections. The drones, priced at less than $50,000, will provide these services at lower costs than helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, which fly for $1,000 and $500 an hour respectively, Polo says.

A Hopkinton-based website, Drone Life, has tracked the surge in hobbyist and industrial drone usage. It publishes a guide to drones available for purchase today and also a directory of service providers to shoot your wedding or company golf outing from above. (It lists five Massachusetts drone videographers.) Founder Alan Phillips acknowledges that offering drones-for-hire violates federal rules but adds that courts are still determining whether the FAA has jurisdiction over drones flying under 400 feet or more than 5 miles from an airport.

For now, companies flying drones either have to apply for a special exemption from the FAA — just 30 have been granted so far — or count on the agency not having sufficient enforcement resources to play whack-a-mole with everyone flying unmanned aircraft for pay.

It’s an interesting moment for the civilian drone industry — not just because of the cloud of regulatory uncertainty but also because of the array of startups and military contractors racing to improve products while reducing costs.

Panoptes, for instance, began selling early versions of its obstacle-avoidance system, the eBumper, for $499 last year. (The drone it connects to, the DJI Phantom, costs $679.) Chief technology officer Fabrice Kunzi says they are working to lower the price, enable the system to prevent collisions when drones fly at higher speeds, and upgrade it so it can avoid other drones and manned aircraft.

Some day, the scars on Kehlenbeck’s arm might be historic — not unlike those from an early velocipede crash. He’ll tell his grandkids, “These are prop hits from the days when drones didn’t know how to keep away from people.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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