US government shows support for private drone companies with $6 million FAA matching program

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to do a little bit more to help private drone companies in a FAA matching program.

The FAA has $6 million on the table for drone companies who can provide what it calls “vital drone integration safety work” at any one of its seven drone test sites.

In particular, the FAA is looking for companies that are working on geofencing, hazard alerts, sense and avoid, beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights, night time flights, flights over people, multi-drone operations, privacy work and UTM (drone air traffic control).

The funding for the partnership was mandated and provided by Congress in the FAA’s Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019. The FAA has been working closely with private companies, particularly in the drone industry, and this latest news indicates that the FAA looks to continue that trend.

For example, in February 2019, the FAA announced it would work with San Francisco software startup Kittyhawk to lead development in an exclusive public-private partnership of the next iteration of its B4UFly app for drones. And the entire UAS test program is a public-private partnership, where companies like Google and AirMap are teaming up with local governments to test out types of drone flights.

There are a number of stipulations to get a piece of the $6 million and participate in the FAA matching program. First, it’s a matching program, so companies need to put down money themselves in order to take any federal funding.

Companies also must have an existing contractual relationship with one of the seven test sites. That reduces the pool of companies eligible to participate to the companies partnering in the test site program with local governments already, which includes companies like Project Wing (formerly part of Google), Fortem, AirMap, Zipline and Matternet.

Though, if a company wants to participate but isn’t involved in the test site program currently, they can show in their application that FAA funding would enable it to enter into a contract with a test site.

FAA matching program drone test site

From there, companies need to go through a two-step application process: submit a white paper package by June 28, 2019.

If they move on to step two, they must submit a full proposal by July 31, 2019. Contracts are expected to be awarded by September 30, 2019.

A number of other countries are actively seeking to pour money into drone companies, and $6 million may actually be small beans compared to the offer that other countries have on the table.

AirBoard CEO Elviss Straupenieks, which is based in the tiny Baltic country of Latvia, said the Latvian government reimburses him 70% of travel costs to pitch his company in San Francisco. There’s also a Latvian tax regime specifically for startups so they can save on social and income tax, visiting entrepreneurs can apply for a “startup visa,” and the country it has granted €15 million in accelerator funding for pre-seed and seed investments.

And while $6 million is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not huge compared to how much money is in the drone industry already. PrecisionHawk raised $75 million in January 2018, and Skydio took $42 million that year. Israeli industrial dronemaker Airobotics raised $40 million in 2018, while drone entertainment company Verity Studios raised $18 million (they’re the company that put on the drone scene in Cirque du Soleil).

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