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Marlborough drone company American Robotics gets head start in autonomous flights

A photo of American Robotics drone system in a field.
A photo of American Robotics drone system in a field.Courtesy of American Robotics

A small Marlborough company that makes drones is taking off for the public market.

American Robotics, with 20 employees, completed its merger with Ondas Holdings, a publicly traded holding company, on Thursday in a mostly stock transaction valued at about $71 million.

The acquisition comes roughly six months after American Robotics won a landmark approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate fully autonomous drones without a human operator on the ground. Previous approvals have required someone to monitor the drone at all times, never letting it leave a visual line of sight. That has made it a difficult technology to deploy widely, especially in the remote areas that American Robotics is focused on.

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Reese Mozer, the company’s chief executive and cofounder, said a farmer might use drones to spot unhealthy crops, or a railroad operator could use them to check for defects on its tracks.

But Mozer says American Robotics is more than a drone company. The real play is in collecting and analyzing data for other companies, he said, so they can more efficiently maintain their assets. American Robotics drones make up to 20 autonomous flights daily. Afterward, they perch themselves on a white crate to recharge, process data, and generate analytics.

“Typically, it is just people walking around, or driving a truck around...maybe cameras on poles, manually flown drones,” he said. “Imagine if you had a really accurate digital 3-D presentation of your facility every day.”

An Americans Robotics drone flew above the crate it enters and exits autonomously.
An Americans Robotics drone flew above the crate it enters and exits autonomously.

But sending drones to remote areas can present network connectivity issues, a roadblock to adoption of technology. That’s why American Robotics is merging with Ondas Holdings, which owns Ondas Networks, a 25-person Silicon Valley company that builds wireless data networks for critical infrastructure industries. Ondas’s executives hail from AT&T, GE Transportation, and WorldCom.

“Railroads, utilities, oil and gas players... they need drones,’’ said Eric Brock, the chief executive and chairman of Ondas. “They all have drone programs, but they are having trouble scaling them.”

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American Robotics and Ondas are integrating their products, which will allow the drones to fly across a wider area and give the company access to Ondas’s existing customers. Mozer said he doesn’t consider the acquisitions an “exit” because American Robotics will continue to grow in Massachusetts.

The FAA approval opens the door for other startups to follow, but for now, Mozer said, the company has breathing room. The clearance was specific to its proprietary technology, he said, and a process that standardizes the approval for “everybody is going to take three to five years, if not longer.”

American Robotics customers pay an annual subscription fee for the drone systems. Mozer declined to provide a price range, but said “because of the removal of the human, it is an order of magnitude cheaper than what folks can do today with pilots.”

American Robotics is not disclosing how many customers it has or how many it plans to have. But Mozer said the firm is “actively signing” new businesses every week, including a Fortune 100 oil and gas company last month.

The tough part, Brock said, will be ramping up inventory levels and hiring enough people as the company grows. He said customers may begin with a few drones but eventually expand to a fleet of hundreds or thousands.

Prior to the acquisition, American Robotics raised about $10 million from investors. The company plans to double its workforce to about 40 by the end of this year, then double it again by the end of 2022.

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Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.