The countdown to commercial drones is ticking away.
In just sixteen months, the Federal Aviation Administration will hit its deadline for getting drones in American commercial airspace. By that time, America’s most forward-looking companies hope to be able to make their drone plans a reality.
Amazon will deliver small packages via robotic quadcopters, Google will build a wireless network out of hot air balloons, and Facebook will manage low-Earth orbit satellite relay stations.
Though investment opportunities are few, interest is high, and an increasing number of companies are putting new unmanned aircraft on the market.
New Jersey-based Sunlight Photonics Inc. recently launched its solar-powered unmanned aircraft called the Sunlink-5, targeting commercial and civil applications in low- and medium-altitude flights.
The craft is similar to AeroVironment’s (NASDAQ: AVAV) high-altitude solar vehicles, which have been built for NASA since the early 1980s. Sunlink claims they will be the first commercially available solar drones and that they are robust enough to fly multiple missions and withstand “very demanding applications.”
They can carry payloads up to 11 pounds (5kg) and generate up to 100W of electrical power via their photovoltaic cells. Their maximum altitude is 10,000 feet, and they can fly for upwards of eight hours. Sunlight says these drones are designed for such uses as wireless communications, agriculture, land survey, wildfire or wildlife monitoring, and border patrol.
Currently, Sunlight Photonics is shooting for fourth-quarter availability of the Sunlink-5, so these will be timed to hit the market a full year before the FAA is expected to implement its commercial drone policies.
Sunlight Photonics lists only a single investor on its website: VenEarth Group, LLC. This venture capital group also invests in Australia’s AnthroTerra and the UK’s Carbon Gold Ltd., and it includes former Talking Heads keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison on its managerial board.
Sunlight Photonics is led by CEO Michael Cyrus and vice presidents Allan Bruce and Sergey Frolov. All three of them came from Inplane Photonics, a venture-backed company that made Planar Lightwave Circuits for optical communications networks. In 2007, Inplane was acquired by CyOptics.
This part of the company’s history is important because Sunlight holds 14 U.S. patents covering solar cell film, one that is basically a blanket patent for solar-powered drones and several that capitalize on their previous experience in electro-optic devices and optical communications. There are 24 more patents in the process of approval.
Earlier this year, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) both acquired drone startups: Ascenta and Titan Aerospace, respectively. These companies were both similar to Sunlight in that they were relatively unknown startup outfits working on solar-powered drones for network communication purposes.
With its portfolio of intellectual property, Sunlight could be an important acquisition target for either Facebook or Google, irrespective of the company’s actual production of drones.
This is especially important considering the nature of Sunlight’s recently announced drones.
You see, the drones that both Facebook and Google are considering are HALE (high altitude, long endurance) craft. The Sunlink-5 is low altitude and short endurance, with special emphasis on durability and re-usability.
While they’d do well in fleshing out a portfolio of drone properties, the actual products may not be as important to Google and Facebook as their communications systems.
Organizations focusing on short, low-altitude flights seem to favor vertical rotor vehicles so far. Amazon, for example, used an eight-rotor vehicle for its PrimeAir tests. Fixed-wing vehicles have generally been used in larger-scale operations where tight maneuverability is not necessary.
San Francisco startup Airware, for example, utilized fixed-wing drones to monitor African grasslands so they could protect rhinoceros from illegal poachers. The Sunlink-5 would work well in this very scenario. Its lower demand for fuel, its purported higher strength chassis, and its overall design make it fit right in.
Watch for potential acquisitions from companies in the agricultural, geological, and conservationist sectors.