Founded by Google veterans and backed by $340 million from major VCs, Skydio is creating drones that seem straight out of science fiction—and they could end up in your neighborhood soon.
Three years ago, Customs and Border Protection placed an order for self-flying aircraft that could launch on their own, rendezvous, locate and monitor multiple targets on the ground without any human intervention. In its reasoning for the order, CBP said the level of monitoring required to secure America’s long land borders from the sky was too cumbersome for people alone. To research and build the drones, CBP handed $500,000 to Mitre Corporation, a trusted non-profit skunkworks that was already furnishing border police with prototype rapid DNA testing and smartwatch hacking technology.
Mitre’s unmanned aerial vehicles didn’t take off. They were “tested but not fielded operationally” as “the gap from simulation to reality turned out to be much larger than the research team originally envisioned,” a CBP spokesperson says.
But the setback didn’t end CBP’s sci-fi dreams. This year, America’s border police will test automated drones from Skydio, the Redwood City, Calif.-based startup which on Monday announced it had raised an additional $170 million in venture funding at a valuation of $1 billion. That brings the total raised for Skydio to $340 million. Investors include blue chip VC shops like Andreessen Horowitz, AI-chip maker Nvidia and even Kevin Durant, the NBA star. It’s not clear just how well its drones are selling; Skydio refuses to discuss revenue figures, claiming an estimate of sub-$5 million per year was “significantly off base.” But the Army and Air Force have spent a collective $10 million and the DEA $225,000 on Skydios in the last two years. By Forbes’ calculation, based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and Skydio’s public announcements, more than 20 police agencies across the U.S. now have Skydios as part of their drone fleets, including major cities like Austin and Boston.
The company was founded in 2014 by ex-MIT and Google unmanned flight specialists with ambitions that go far beyond policing the borders. Gawky, dark-haired and stubbled, with the manner of a Star Trek ensign, 34-year-old Skydio cofounder and CEO Adam Bry believes his company will lead the world to a place where drones don’t need a pilot, whether they’re helping police, inspecting bridges or delivering goods. “We’re solving a lot of the core problems that are needed to make drones trustworthy and be able to fly themselves,” he says from his home, two blocks from Skydio headquarters just outside of San Francisco. “Autonomy – that core capability of giving a drone the skills of an expert pilot built in, in the software and the hardware – that’s really what we’re all about as a company.”
It claims to be shipping the most advanced AI-powered drone ever built: a quadcopter that costs as little as $1,000, which can latch onto targets and follow them, dodging all sorts of obstacles and capturing everything on high-quality video. Skydio’s claims its software can even predict a target’s next move, whether that target is a pedestrian or a car.
The technology is futuristic, but not exactly brand new. DJI, which claims yearly revenues above $2 billion, has been making drones with similar autonomous flying features since at least 2016. Some police who’ve used Skydio claim its drones are better at flying in tight, tactical situations – like inside buildings or through a forest – but DJI, which is valued north of $15 billion, has a significant market advantage. Analysts put its U.S. market share at between 70% and 80%, with no other manufacturer above 10% (worldwide numbers are similar).
Skydio’s real advantage might simply be that it is not Chinese. The company bills itself as an all-American alternative to DJI (even if it admits some of its plastics and metals are made in China). Just before Christmas, the Trump administration banned American companies exporting to DJI, citing its alleged work supporting oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act may ban any federal agencies buying drones made in China, amidst fears DJI could be forced to send sensitive U.S. government or citizens’ data back to Beijing. Local police agencies are also concerned about the threat of Chinese spying – or at least the optics of buying Chinese surveillance drones.