With flying speeds up to 60 km/h, wings that span to more than 3 meters and a catapult to launch off the ground, Delair’s aren’t your basic drones.

The French startup makes unmanned aircraft that are the Rolls-Royce of drones, with price tags ranging up to €200,000 and features including night vision.

In a drone market dominated by Chinese manufacturers and saturated with cheap toys for consumers, Delair has gone a different way. It builds luxury drones and sells them to companies.

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“They’re very sophisticated high-end systems that differentiate by providing extreme reliability,” says Bastien Mancini, chief operating officer at Delair. Unlike toy drones, they’re also subject to strict regulation and specific training for pilots.

The drones fly long ranges to do things like map quarries or vineyards down to a single centimetre, monitor high-voltage electricity lines or surveil forest fires. All activities that are faster, and more precisely done by a machine from the sky than by a human on the ground.

The company also makes artificial intelligence software to analyse the data collected by its drones and turn it into 3D maps that users can navigate through like a video game.

A photo by Delair showing one of its drones ready to be catapulted into the sky.
A photo from Delair’s website showing one of its drones ready to be catapulted into the sky. This is one of the bigger, more expensive models.

Fierce competition

Not all of Delair’s drones cost hundreds of thousands of euros: its more basic model is priced at around €15,000. It’s still sophisticated, but doesn’t pack the military-grade radars of Delair’s top-of-the-range designs.

Then again, there aren’t that many companies that are prepared to invest in a fleet of drones even at the lower price range.

It makes sense for businesses who can save time and money by collecting data this way: for instance, customers like French railway operator SNCF, whose only alternative to monitor its train tracks would be to send out humans for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres every day, including in remote and hard to access areas.

But even wooing clients like SNCF, who need this technology and end up saving money, is tough. 

The market for enterprise drones has dozens of players fighting it out to sell hardware, software, or both, including behemoths like China’s DJI, and smaller players like Kespry or Skycatch, expanding out of California.

Made in France

To differentiate, Delair’s products are entirely designed and made near Toulouse, France — the home of aerospace giant Airbus and an ecosystem of high-skilled aeronautics engineers. 

It sources parts from Europe only, not Asia, says COO Mancini.

“People often ask us why we bother with the extra cost of building everything in France, instead of bringing in parts to assemble from China,” says Mancini. “For us, it’s always been a choice in favour of sophistication and reliability.”

Formerly a part of France’s space study institute CNES, Mancini left in 2011 to cofound Delair, alongside chief executive Michael de Lagarde.

The company employs 180 people. It last raised money in 2018 from Intel, as part of a deal to license its software to the technology giant.

A photo by Delair showing one of its drones flying.
A photo from Delair’s website showing one of its drones flying. This is the more basic, cheaper model.

Covid opportunity

The coronavirus crisis gave Delair a special chance to prove it has made the right decision keeping production in France, says Mancini.

“During Covid, our made in France strategy was definitely a winner,” he says.

While the global pandemic disrupted supply chains around the globe and caused delays for industrials, Delair steered clear and continued production.

“After Covid hit, this question of local sourcing and European sovereignty shot up to the top of the list for a lot of our customers,” says Mancini. “Those who didn’t understand our strategy before, now they definitely get it.”

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