3D Robotics Iris helicopter drone
3D Robotics has just secured $50m in funding - is the helicopter drone industry growing faster than we think?3D Robotics

3D Robotics, the largest manufacturer of personal helicopter drones in North America, has raised $50m (£32.5m) in its latest round of funding – the largest amount to have been raised by any US-based consumer drone company to date.

The California-based firm is the brainchild of former Wired editor Chris Anderson and drone enthusiast Jordi Munoz, who went into business together in 2009 despite not having even met in person at that point.

The firm provides a wide range of helicopter drones that are equipped for photography and mapping, as well as parts and accessories, including the open source autopilots, which are hugely popular with amateur enthusiasts of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

3D Robotics also owns DIY Drones – a thriving online community where users can discuss helicopter drones, ask for help in forums and access materials to help them with their projects.

The latest round of financing was led by Qualcomm Ventures, and 3D Robotics is to begin expanding its product development to make use of Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors in its helicopter drones.

"The incredible pace of innovation in the smartphone industry is transforming many adjacent industries, including drones. By working with Qualcomm Technologies, we can bring advanced computing to the skies at an increasing pace," said Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics.

"Such multi-gigahertz Linux-based onboard computing platforms, combined with state-of-the-art cameras and other sensors and wireless technologies, will allow us to create next-gen drones that are smarter, easier and safer than ever before."

Including the latest round of funding, 3D Robotics has now raised over $85m to date, and this seems indicative of the huge impact that UAVs are having on the world's economy.

According to projections by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the global market for consumer UAVs will approach $130 million in revenue in 2015 – an increase of 50% from 2014, and by 2020, the market for helicopter drones could easily exceed $1bn.

Just in the US alone, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade association set up for the UAV industry, estimates that helicopter drones will raise 70,000 jobs and contribute $13.6bn in the first three years after they are fully integrated into US skies.

This ties in with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s predictions that there will be 7,500 unmanned craft weighing 25kg (55 pounds) or less operating in the US by 2018.

While the FAA has previously been firmly against allowing UAVs to be flown at all, it has finally come round to the reality of helicopter drones thanks to extensive lobbying from many businesses and drone enthusiasts.

On 16 February, the government agency revealed proposals for commercial helicopter drone regulations which is seen by many as a green light for the industry, although the regulations scupper Amazon and Google's plans for drone delivery services.

The proposed rules enable UAV operation, but only within line of sight, flying at a speed of less than 100mph and staying below 500ft in the air.