'The Drone is Not Coughing on Anyone' – DroneBase Flies High in COVID-19 Lockdown

Tami Abdollah

Tami Abdollah was dot.LA's senior technology reporter. She was previously a national security and cybersecurity reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter for the AP in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times and for L.A.'s NPR affiliate KPCC. Abdollah spent nearly a year in Iraq as a U.S. government contractor. A native Angeleno, she's traveled the world on $5 a day, taught trad climbing safety classes and is an avid mountaineer. Follow her on Twitter.

'The Drone is Not Coughing on Anyone' – DroneBase Flies High in COVID-19 Lockdown
Image Courtesy of Dronebase

As a veteran of the Marine Corps who served as an infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years after 9/11, Dan Burton saw drone technology, quite literally, take off.

Drones went from needing 55 people to fly, to as few as three pilots, to just one. Meanwhile, soldiers on the ground were thrilled to have a decentralized way to get dedicated eyes from above on missions.

Burton would ultimately translate that military experience into a business venture, fathering DroneBase Inc. in 2014 to provide professional drone services for hire. The Santa Monica-based company said it provides customers hassle-free aerial video, photos, mapping and data — and pairs drone-licensed pilots up with jobs around the world. DroneBase has raised more than $17 million, with VC backing from Union Square Ventures, Upfront Ventures, DJI Hearst Ventures and Pritzker Group, among others.

Today, the company is the largest provider of commercial drone services in the world, Burton said, "with the largest network of pilots in the world and the most kind of geographic reach."

When it comes to the coronavirus, well, "the drone is not coughing on anyone," and so the drone and its operator are therefore less impacted, unlike a typical worker in the U.S., Burton said. Pilots are often working by themselves in more isolated situations or areas.

As a result, March was DroneBase's best month of all time, with 30% in business growth from February to March. April is already on pace to beat the record by a similar amount.

"I wish it was under different circumstances," Burton said. "But we feel we're in a position to keep America running, to help with mission critical inspections of critical infrastructure" while workforces are locked down.

DroneBase is one of a handful of Southern California companies that have flourished amid a sort of second aviation-related boom, perhaps in part due to its roots here and the major presence of aviation and government-adjacent companies, from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to the Mojave Air & Space Port and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"Southern California in many ways ushered in the first aviation revolution, drone tech was born here and built here by the military (contractor) companies by and large, now (the industry's) getting built again in companies in Southern California, and maybe SF, too," Burton said.

Drone-related companies have sprouted across the region. Santa Monica-based software company AirMap started in 2015 and has built digital infrastructure to provide air traffic control for unmanned aircrafts. It has raised more than $60 million from venture capital and strategic investors and has more than 300,000 users.

FLIR Systems Inc., which is based in Arlington, Virginia, develops, manufactures and sells thermal imaging, doing much of its innovation out of its tech hub in Santa Barbara. The company is also a DroneBase investor.

Meanwhile, Auterion Government Solutions, which is also based in Southern California, is working on creating software capabilities, including small unmanned aerial systems compatible for U.S. Defense Department drones.

For DroneBase, which today has its software talk with AirMap's and uses FLIR sensors, some early jobs include helping construction sites quickly measure their inventory, or a quarry safely get video of an explosion. Burton found that companies didn't want to buy their own drones and hire their own in-house pilot. They could outsource the job instead.

The 50-person company has 65,000 pilots on its platform — or more than half of the 120,000 pilots in the U.S. who have their "107" or drone pilot license — and registers over 100,000 flights annually. The company also provides footage for news media like The Associated Press and Reuters ("We're their first phone call when they need stuff from the air," Burton said), and its pictures have been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. DroneBase also works with content providers like Getty Images and Shutterstock to provide footage for customers.

DroneBase has a close relationship with DJI — the largest manufacturer of consumer drones worldwide — flying twice a year to its headquarters in Shenzhen, China. DJI has also attracted considerable concern from U.S. government officials and lawmakers over its data security and potential cyber vulnerabilities because of its Chinese supply chain.

In 2015, DJI and Palo Alto, Calif.-based Accel teamed up to create SkyFund, which invests in "the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)." SkyFund became the first strategic investor in DroneBase, Burton said.

A nearly empty Santa Monica, Calif. pier as seen from above during COVID-19 stay-home orders, taken by a DroneBase drone.

Courtesy of DroneBase

DroneBase pilots, who use their own drones, have flown in all 50 states and 70 different countries, Burton said, enabling its pilots to talk to each other through their software and creating sort of de facto standards for unmanned commercial drone flight.

The company has also done jobs like assessing office buildings, evaluating rooftop water damage that's below the surface using thermal imaging, or assessing the health of solar panels or wind turbines, which can be very dangerous to inspect up close and in person.

After Hurricane Harvey hit in Texas and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, DroneBase got to work helping out with insurance company evaluations, helping speed up claims by weeks in areas difficult and dangerous to inspect in person. Their pilots flew drones from 5 feet to 100 feet off the roof, providing imagery that's far better than satellites, Burton said.

"This was very much a military technology that was subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer that's now becoming a commercial industry, not unlike fast-food," Burton said.


Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my Signal.


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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.