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Propwash #2 - The rise and fall of 3D Robotics - Silicon Valley's drone darling

Propwash #2 - The rise and fall of 3D Robotics - Silicon Valley's drone darling
By Nihal Mohan • Issue #2 • View online
90% of startups fail. For drones, which are in between the trough of disillusionment and the slope of enlightenment, the survivors have adapted and morphed, and there’s a lot to learn from them. This week we see how 3D Robotics did just that, and what Sony’s launch means for the future.

🚁 3D Robotics - past, present and future?
3D Robotics (3DR) plays a very important part in the history of the drone age. It was one of the leading companies and a figurehead for open source technology while it fought the giant, DJI in the early years of the industry.
Here’s a not-too-long drone history lesson following 3DR’s footsteps (or propwash?) -
The competitive consumer era:
2013-2016 were the years of peak inflated expectations for the Drone Industry. Media was abuzz with drone deliveries, drone taxis, and various applications. In the forefront of this hype cycle were two names that were fighting it out in the market. It was the age of DJI v/s 3DR.
3DR was the Silicon Valley startup that started when Chris Anderson met Jordi Muñoz in the online community DIYDrones(which Chris himself founded). Meanwhile, DJI was the young startup from Shenzhen, building autopilots and pivoting into drones later on.
Both companies had a history of having launched several drones before. 3DR had the iris, and the lesser known X8; while DJI had the Phantom 1 and Phantom 2. The final round of this consumer drone competition had the hotly anticipated drones from both companies, the 3DR Solo and the DJI Phantom 3. These drones were pivotal to the industry as they represented a significant step-up from their predecessors, which still had a polished hobby-grade quality to them. These were supposed to be the big-league products, the ones to show that the Drone Industry is serious and is going to get big.
The competition between the two drones and their companies, was the focus of attention in the industry. Long story short, 3DR lost out. The 3DR Solo was fighting a solo battle against the multitude of drones in the DJI Phantom series. Competition in hardware products is very difficult when your competition is from Shenzhen. The Solo was plagued with poor reviews, and the Phantom 3’s killer feature of an integrated camera was much appreciated globally.
The rapid manufacturing and vertical integration prowess of Shenzhen’s DJI resulted in 5 drones that could be seen as direct competition to the 3DR Solo - Phantom 3 (Professional, Advanced, Standard, and 4K) and the Phantom 4 in just a span of 8 months.
3DR’s defeat in the consumer space was clear. They would later announce that they stopped producing new drones. DJI continues to dominate the commercial drones market and hasn’t looked back since.
Behind The Crash Of 3D Robotics, North America's Most Promising Drone Company
The enticing enterprise era
Facing tough times with layoffs, 3DR pivoted into the enterprise sector. They built Site Scan, a software solution for data collection, with processing and analytics using drones. It had integrations with several enterprise construction software, resulting in 3DR raising $53 Million to become a drone data platform.
Investors are betting 3DR can find life after Solo as a drone data platform – TechCrunch
Site Scan was initially advertised to work with Solo, and was built around the homegrown product. But soon, it became clear that the Solo was not up to the task, and 3DR had to partner with their old rivals, DJI to add support for DJI drones to Site Scan.
“We were the American DJI, We went head to head with them in consumer—now in the commercial era, we are partnering with them.” - Chris Anderson
Enterprise software doesn’t make a lot of headlines. So was the case with 3DR. After DJI, 3DR partnered with the second-best drone manufacturer in the world, Yuneec. This resulted in a version of the Yuneec H520 to be sold as the 3DR H520-G.
Site Scan was later sold to ESRI, the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software leader in December 2019, and Site Scan became a part of ESRI’s drone collection.
With their hardware division shut down, and the software one sold, what does 3DR do now? From reading the about page, 3DR has been working with the FAA (USA’s aviation regulator) on drone type certification, and was one of the 10 companies that was approved by the new process.
Why am I telling you this?
Earlier this week, Chris Anderson shared some news on twitter:
Chris Anderson
Some personal/professional news: I'll be joining @kittyhawkcorp (Larry Page & Sebastian Thrun's eVTOL company) as COO as part of a 3DR acquisition. The path from drones to remotely-piloted passenger aircraft is becoming increasingly clear, especially from a FAA cert basis...
Diving deeper, there’s an article by the Verge that covers the story in some detail. 3DR is being acquired by Larry Page’s Flying Car/Passenger Drone/eVTOL(electric Vertical Take-Off & Landing) startup Kitty Hawk(not to be confused with Kittyhawk, the UTM company).
Kitty Hawk is developing an eVTOL aircraft called Heaviside. The acquisition highlights the recent work by 3DR on FAA’s certification processes, and that this expertise will help bring Heaviside to market (hopefully) in the next three years.
Kitty Hawk just lost their Program Head in a disagreement about the company’s strategy. The company plans to bet on Autonomous vehicles with a remote pilot in command (who’s not on-board the aircraft) that can take over when required. This will be a tough one to pass by the FAA, and creating a new regulatory framework for advanced tech like this, is what Chris Anderson is pulled in to do.
To me, the entire news strikes a slightly sad tone. When I decided to take the plunge to enter this industry, 3DR and DJI were the big-names that we’d all look up to. Even though 3DR lost the battle to DJI, they still hold a special place in the history of the drone age. 3DR gave birth to the pixhawk, the flight controller or autopilot that became synonymous with Open source drones, and was an essential part of a lot of projects in my career.
3DR has seen it all, done it all. From manufacturing, open source, to enterprise software and regulatory work. With most of their business lines sold, or shut down, the future of 3DR is not clear anymore to me. Neither company has made an announcement on what the acquisition means for 3DR. I don’t know what the future holds for 3DR. I wish this is not the last chapter, though all signs point to it.
📸 Sony's path to the peak
This week, we got more details about Sony’s drone, Airpeak which was teased 6 months ago. Sony has decided not to target the consumer market, or the prosumer market. Airpeak, with a hefty price tag of $9000 is targeted at professionals with plenty of money to budget.
The $9000 price tag doesn’t include the camera or the gimbal. It’s just for the drone. Speaking of which, the drone is not too bad either, it can withstand winds of up to 20m/s and can carry a full frame alpha series mirrorless camera.
Sony announces the professional Airpeak S1 drone that it teased at CES - The Verge
Drone adoption has mostly been from hobbyists who played around with them (bottom-up) as opposed to top-down initiatives from upper management. The Airpeak is a positive sign - an existing product company sees the potential and market in drone technology, and decides to start doing something about it.
Sony has been careful not to enter the cut-throat consumer market monopolized by DJI, and is instead focusing on it’s manufacturing strength, and capitalizing on compatibility with it’s existing product line of cameras.
Drone adoption is more bottom-up than top-down. credit: DroneAnalyst
Drone adoption is more bottom-up than top-down. credit: DroneAnalyst
While Sony has designed and manufactured most of the drone, there are two partnerships that are visible:
It’s too early to say much more about the drone, as the product is expected to start shipping later this year. However, while the flight time is a little underwhelming when compared to the competition, I hope that the integration with Sony’s wide camera line will prove to be a better selling point. If the product succeeds, and we get a sequel to it, it will be a signal to other legacy enterprises to start their own drone programs, which will be a great booster for the drone age.
🔍 Other bits
  • Watch this message for our world leaders shown at the G7 summit to “Act Now” on climate change. The company behind the scenes is Celestial.
  • The FAA has added a voluntary and confidential Safety reporting system for UAS. This is a welcome and necessary move. Hopefully more countries implement this.
  • Zipline is setting new records in drone delivery.
  • DroneBase, the global drone service provider, acquires Precision XYZ, a company that was focused on drone based solar and renewable inspection and services.
  • Autopilots are serious products. Enterprise Autopilots have very serious and hard to recall product names. But not George. George is the most wholesome name for an enterprise autopilot.
  • Skybrowse can create 3D models from video, no need of photos. And the tech is called videogrammetry.
🚗 Not Serious
FPV flying pilots never cease to amaze me with their skills, here’s the latest from YouTuber and FPV pilot, Johnny FPV that’s a must-watch 👇
Drive2Extremes - Taycan Cross Turismo X Johnny FPV
Drive2Extremes - Taycan Cross Turismo X Johnny FPV
👷 Not Drones
Every week I also share something unrelated to drones, but makes for an interesting read. This week’s curated link is a report on the state of the freelance economy.
Contra | The State of Independence Report 2021
🏁 Wrapping up
I made a small change to the format by focusing on one story with extra detail. Did you like it? Reply to this mail with your thoughts.
Hope you found this issue of Propwash valuable. If you did, I’d love it if you shared it with your friends/colleagues. You can send them here to sign up or forward this email to them.
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Keep flying,
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nihal Mohan

Every week, I share the most important ideas, news and insights from all over the drone space and tell you what matters.

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