For the first time in history, investments in drones--those buzzy airborne gadgets that used to be called UAVs--have crossed a billion dollars. $1.2 billion has already been invested in unmanned aerial tech in 2017 so far, according to CB Insights. When I invested in a drone startup last year, there was only about $600 million in venture capital deployed. Drone pilots still had to be licensed like fixed-wing aircraft.
"In the past several years, the drone space has crossed the threshold from being driven by hobbyists and experimentalists to being largely enterprise-dominated," says John Frankel, founder at FFVC, a New York venture capital firm and early drone investor. He invested in Top Flight Technologies in 2015, and later, Skycatch, an autonomous aerial mapping startup that helps international construction and mining companies like Komatsu automate the collection, processing, and analysis of aerial data."
The doubling of investment and FAA deregulation now are driving a mini job boom. It's fast creating a workforce as large as that of private school teachers in the U.S.--about 400,000.
Deregulation is driving the drone market.
Seeing the need for more licensed drone operators, about this time last year, the FAA created a new commercial drone pilot licensing program that requires no hands-on demonstration and onboards commercially licensed pilots fast. How fast? Plunk down $150, a 70-question multiple choice test, and the license could be yours. In the first 3 months, 300 new drone operators were minted every business day. Out of the first 28,000 applicants, some 22,000 passed. Those numbers pale, however, in comparison to the number of commercial drones registered in the same period--2,000 a day.
The FAA's young drone pilot license program is also creating sub-industries that create jobs. For example, the University of South Dakota just added drone operations to its academic curricula. Instructor Byron Noel shared recently with the Brookings Register, "It's useful in any field where an aerial perspective is useful."
"The drone industry is a great place to find a job," says Aerobo's Brian Streem, an Inc. 30 Under 30 honoree and the founder of that startup I invested in last year. His offices in Los Angeles and Brooklyn are hiring drone operators, production, and sales talent. Streem believes there are lots more changes to come in how users interact with drones. "A lot of people underestimate the complexities of actually pulling off a drone operation because of the 'unfun' stuff--charging batteries, performing flight maintenance, checking airspace. Automation only gets us so far. There is still manual work to do."
Many drone startup CEOs are pushing the FAA to ease back even further on regulation and further open the market. In a recent meeting with President Trump on emerging technology, former founder of Blackboard and current CEO of Precision Hawk of Raleigh, NC, Michael Chasen, lobbied Trump to relax regulations that are "limiting what drone technology can do," as reported by Recode.
Another big driver of the drone age is the promise of easy access to hard-to-reach locations.
Whether you're Qualcomm and AT&T, which are piloting drones for cell tower inspection, or Amazon and Wal-mart, which are both investigated airship warehouses, not every business location has a highway. Drones are making a significant business case for extending the eyes, ears and operations of a number of enterprises at a cost that's worth exploring. Amazon is even looking at an "Alexa in the sky."
Corporations are on pace to acquire a drone startup a month this year.
Increasingly, drone jobs aren't just at startups--they're at big corporations. Already in 2017, Intel acquired MaVinci. Boeing bought Liquid Robotics. Verizon snapped up Skyward and Snap snipped Ctrl Me Robotic.
FAA predicts the U.S. registered commercial drone feel to climb to between 442,000 and1.6 million in the next few years. Every few new drones create at least one job, at a minimum, to maintain, deploy and operationalize the asset, so we're looking at a new job force of a few hundred thousand created in just a few years.