By Eric Auchard
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - AirMap, a start-up which has become the world's top supplier of air traffic management software for drones, is raising $26 million in new financing from a group of industry investors led by the venture capital investment arm of Microsoft.
The group led by Microsoft Ventures also includes the venture capital unit of aerospace giant Airbus, chipmaker Qualcomm, Japanese tech firms Rakuten and Sony and China's Yuneec, a top drone maker.
AirMap said it provides real-time traffic management services for 80 percent of all drones, including millions of robotic aircraft from hundreds of manufacturers, allowing drones and their controllers to share data needed to fly safely at low altitudes.
The company was founded only two years ago. Its software works on both piloted and autonomous drones used in both commercial and recreational applications.
The new round of financing will enable AirMap to expand into markets worldwide, while opening offices in Berlin and at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Headquartered in Santa Monica, California, the firm now counts just 50 employees.
"This round is all about finding a set of partners to help us globalise," AirMap Chief Executive Ben Marcus said in an interview.
Existing investors General Catalyst Partners and Lux Capital also took part in the round, bringing AirMap’s total funding to more than $43 million since its founded in early 2015.
Marcus, who previously co-founded jetAVIVA, one of the largest U.S. brokers for small business jets, also serves as the industry co-chair for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team which works with the air industry.
AirMap's data and services are already embedded in drones, ground control stations and flight apps from top drone makers including China’s DJI, U.S. chipmaker Intel, Switzerland’s senseFly, a unit of Parrot SA, U.S.-based 3D Robotics (3DR) and Canada’s Aeryon Labs.
More than 125 airports use AirMap’s management dashboard to open surrounding airspace to drones, view past and current drone flights, track digital flight notices, and communicate with drone operators.
In a statement, Microsoft Ventures said its investment would allow AirMap to make use of Microsoft's resources, software and artificial intelligence tools, as Microsoft seeks to get involved in the burgeoning drone aviation market.
Airbus said it would collaborate with AirMap to ensure that autonomous airborne vehicles ranging from delivery drones to the "flying taxis" it is developing itself can operate safely in the vicinity of other aircraft. (http://reut.rs/2mouWd4)
(Editing by Maria Sheahan, Greg Mahlich)