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3D Robotics raises $30M to bust open the market for cheap, unmanned aerial vehicles

Robots are eating the world, and 3D Robotics wants to help them eat a lot more of it.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company, which former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson runs, announced today that it’s raised $30 million in a Series B round led by True Ventures and joined by new investor Foundry Group. Existing investors O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and SK Ventures also joined the round. The company has raised $35 million to date.

Foundry Group’s Jason Mendelson, who is joining the 3D Robotics board, says that his firm’s interest is a bet that UAVs are going to play a larger role in our lives in the coming years — for better or for worse. “The idea that we’re going to have robots doing more work for is very exciting to us,” Mendelson said.

3D Robotics, recently announced the 3DR IRIS, a $730 ready-to-fly autonomous “multicopter” that it plans to ship to consumers in November.

While the market for UAVs is still relatively young, the potential applications for what 3D Robotics is creating are massive. The company is already exploring how its robots could automate certain agricultural operations, which 3D Robotics says will increase crop yield and decrease water and chemical use. 3D Robotics plans to use its funding to further develop these sorts of applications.

3D Robotics is creating a market for cheap, powerful UAVs.

Above: 3D Robotics is creating a market for cheap, powerful UAVs.

And the money is certainly there as well. AUVSI, a UAV industry trade group, estimates that within three years, the use of drones in commercial airspace will create 70,000 jobs and inject $13.6 billion into the U.S. economy.  (Though admittedly, these estimates are probably a bit biased.)

Besides agriculture, Foundry is also eyeing slightly less conventional applications as well. “Picture a world where a local mom-and-pop shop can use these UAVs to offer customers delivery within an hour by tossing products on a drone. That would be huge against Amazon,” Mendelson said.

But investor interest in 3D Robotics is driven by more than just the hardware it’s building. The company has also done an admirable job of harnessing the community that’s developed around its inventions — a dynamic that Mendelson compares to that of MakerBot, another one of Foundry Group’s investments. “They’ve really developed a vibrant user base,” he said.

Going forward, however, one of the bigger challenges for 3DRobotics and its fellow UAV companies will be navigating the maze of regulations and popular backlash that are bound to emerge.

At a time when “drone” has already become a very bad word, 3D Robotics will certainly face lots of pushback as it continues to grow.

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