The commercial drone industry in the U.S. is still very young — it was only two years ago that the Federal Aviation Administration passed rules giving companies the green light to fly their own drones. That means some of the first movers in the industry are scaling at eye-popping rates, as embodied by Raleigh drone startup PrecisionHawk, which today announced its fifth acquisition in one year.
PrecisionHawk announced that it’s acquiring Uplift Data Partners, a Chicago-based provider of drone-based inspection services for the construction and facilities management industry, for an undisclosed amount. Uplift launched in 2015 as a subsidiary of Clayco, a Chicago construction giant.
“Uplift had not only referenceable accounts, but also this great expertise and understanding of the market that set them apart,” PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
The Uplift acquisition was preceded by the acquisitions of Hazon and InspecTools in September, and Droners and AirVid in February. Those acquisitions were enabled by a $75 million funding round in January.
Founded in 2010, PrecisionHawk initially focused on the agriculture industry. Its investors include Intel Capital, Verizon Ventures, and Comcast Ventures, and it has about 150 employees.
This year’s acquisitions have filled two of the buckets necessary as PrecisionHawk seeks to take on more clients across the country, in a wider variety of industries. Droners and AirVid were both platforms that allowed companies to hire licensed drone pilots, enabling PrecisionHawk to build up its network of contract pilots. Today, the company has a network of 15,000 contract drone pilots, as well as 30 full-time pilots on staff that can be hired out for jobs.
Uplift, Hazon, and InspecTools meanwhile were vertical acquisitions — Hazon and InspecTools both specialized in developing drone and technology services for the utility and renewable energy market respectively.
PrecisionHawk bills itself as a “full enterprise solution stack,” meaning that it both provides the necessary hardware and software to help companies gather and interpret aerial data, as well as integrate it into the company’s own enterprise solutions.
Chasen told VentureBeat that some customers — like Syngenta, a large agrichemical business and also an investor in PrecisionHawk — seek to set up their own drone divisions. In one such case, PrecisionHawk is helping Syngenta train and license their own pilots, as well as develop algorithms to analyze the aerial data collected. Other customers only want to use PrecisionHawk’s drones for a specific project, like Exxon Mobile, which hired PrecisionHawk to gather aerial data along its pipelines in Alaska.
According to Chasen, PrecisionHawk’s largest customers pay up to seven or eight figures for its services, while its smallest customers may pay $15,000 for an individual drone and software package. He said that PrecisionHawk has hundreds of customers now, but declined to give a specific number.
In the next year, Chasen told VentureBeat that PrecisionHawk will seek to gain a larger foothold in the industries that are projected to spend the most on commercial drone projects: energy and renewables, agriculture, construction, infrastructure, and insurance and government.
Reports show that the commercial drone industry continues to grow quickly — albeit from a small base. According to a 2017 forecast from Gartner — which projected the number of commercial drones sold that year to more than 174,000 — the adoption rate of commercial drones was growing more slowly than expected in industries like agriculture, thanks to the high costs.
Chasen, naturally, is bullish on the U.S. commercial drone sector’s prospects — he believes that it will see an “explosion” in the next two years, where “you can just look out your window and see drones doing work or flying around.”
“Eighteen months ago, we were in discussions with our clients about whether they could use a drone or fly a drone over their assets,” Chasen told VentureBeat. “Now, a year later that conversation has completely changed … they are saying, ‘Well, what can I use this data for, and how do I make my business more efficient by using this data?'”