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Skyward, a Portland company that’s building network infrastructure for commercial drone operators, today announced a $4.1 million round.

drones-faa1GeekWire reported on the funding earlier this month; today the company confirmed an official amount of $4.1 million. Participating investors include Draper Associates, Founders Co-­op, Norwest Venture Partners, Techstars Ventures, Verizon Ventures, and Voyager Capital.

Founded in 2012, Skyward offers commercial drone operators a network that provides a way to manage individual drone information, digital logbooks, pilot credentials, and real-time air charts that can be read by both humans and machines. The company also helps clients navigate the often-changing regulatory landscape for UAVs.

The target market ranges from those making drone deliveries, to farmers, to emergency response teams — anyone that is using UAVs to increase efficiency in the workplace.

Jonathan Evans.
Jonathan Evans.

“Operators that want to fly with confidence will join the Skyward network to access the tools and information they need to fly safely,” CEO and founder Jonathan Evans told GeekWire. “Using our real-time air chart, they will be able to access the airspace, while our information management tools help them fly in compliance with insurance and regulatory requirements.”

The idea is to provide some trust and comfort for drone operators, particularly around safety and compliance in the rather nascent industry of aerial robotics.

Evans compared Skyward to Verizon Wireless, noting how the wireless carrier has built a network infrastructure that powers mobile communication in a world regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Skyward wants to do the same, but for drones.

“We see airspace around the robots as being a universal public good that just needs some professional management,” explained Evans, a retired professional pilot with more than 3,000 hours of flight time.

Skyward works with the Federal Aviation Administration almost daily to make sure its clients are following the most up-to-date regulations.

“The FAA provides the rules and regulations — the ‘what’ an operator needs to do,” noted Evans. “Skyward is providing the ‘how’ — tools for operators to easily access the information they need, and the network infrastructure, so they can fly with confidence.”

Two months ago, the FAA released proposed rules for commercial drones that requires pilots to maintain line-of-sight in daylight hours. Amazon, which announced its ambitious plan for drone deliveries in 2013 on 60 Minutes, is one of many companies asking the FAA to tweak its rules to allow beyond line-of-sight and night operations.

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As the number of businesses utilizing drones continues to grow, the FAA announced in April that it working to help speed up regulatory approval for drone use.

“The drones are here,” Evans said. “When Jeff Bezos went on 60 Minutes, it caused people’s public imagination to conjure an image of aerial robotics that made sense. When you marry that vision with the kind of trust and certainty you expect from professional aviation, you can see what Skyward is ultimately providing.”

DJI Inspire 1. Photo via Skyward.
DJI Inspire 1. Photo via Skyward.

In October, Skyward partnered with NASA for a project called “Urban Skyways” that will demonstrate how a commercial drone network operated with full regulatory and insurance compliance may look like in the future. The company also has partnerships with big drone hardware makers like DJI, 3D Robotics, and Parrot.

“We are building a digital airspace infrastructure around all of these systems,” Evans said. “We are the context they are in.”

The fresh cash will be used to grow Skyward’s team from 11 to nearly 30. The company’s commercial software is set for release later this year.

Chris Devore, General Partner at Seattle-based Founders Co-op, said that his firm had been watching the drone industry with interest, waiting for the right opportunity. He likes how Skyward is a Northwest-based company and called it a “very smart software data play on the entire drone ecosystem.”

“When you zoom out and think about the capacity for autonomous machine intelligence to do functions that currently require heavy capital equipment and humans, you can imagine a huge number of use cases,” Devore said. “They will all require someone to manage conflicts, authorization, tracking, compliance, and insurability.”

Skyward has now raised $5.7 million to date. Each investor from the company’s earlier $1.5 million round also participated in this deal.

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