This startup used drones like blimps to display ads. Soon, it could be a critical public safety tool

Back in 2015, entrepreneur Jamar Williams was using drones to take real estate photos in San Diego. Being such a nascent technology, Williams said the public reaction to him flying was often mixed. Some were excited or curious, while others were agitated or afraid. But all those people had one thing in common: everyone noticed them.

The attention his drone constantly drew gave Williams an idea: turn them into an advertising tool. So a year later, Williams launched Promo Drone as a service provider using drones as “flying billboards.” It’s seen strong success, flying drones for brands including Grey Goose Vodka and Ralphs Grocery. In 2021, it expanded to offer its services as far out as Guam.

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Photo courtesy of Promo Drone

Promo Drone’s ad business is still alive and well, but lately, it’s set its sights on something bigger — and something that could quite literally save lives.

Promo Drone pivots to public safety

This year, Promo Drone launched a drone dedicated almost entirely to emergency response and public safety called the Starling X.2. Williams, who is founder and CEO of Promo Drone, said the idea came about as team members sought to come up with ways their company could expand and evolve.

“During a brainstorming session, we had determined that expanding into public safety and emergency response would be a good shift for us due to the community-first nature of the operations,” Williams said. “The focus on helping to save lives and enhance emergency response tactics reinforces our mission to make drones more community friendly and accepted in everyday life.”

Sure, drones have already been used in aspects of public safety such as searching for lost people using zoom or thermal cameras, or delivering rescue supplies to people. But Promo Drone’s foray into public safety has been fairly unique.

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Photo courtesy of Promo Drone

The Starling X.2 blends its bread and butter — being a flying billboard — with public safety by providing early warning systems, amber alerts, active shooters alerts, and more critical announcements to people within eye and earshot of the drone. 

And already, the public has responded well to Promo Drone’s public safety pivot. The County of San Diego recently awarded a Certificate of Commendation to the company for its business leadership and community impact. 

What to know about the Starling X.2

The Starling X.2 drone is being billed as a drone digital display messaging platform. That’s because — while the Starling X.2 is marketing heavily in the public safety and emergency response sectors — its ability to offer versatile rapid-response messaging and aerial advertising could be used in other industries including outdoor events, advertising, marketing, and fan-centric experiences.

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Photo courtesy of Promo Drone

Made in partnership with Draganfly

The drone was created through a partnership with Promo Drone and Canadian tech powerhouse Draganfly, which has been making drones since 1999. Draganfly has already proven itself in the emergency response and public safety space. In 2013, its drone, the Draganflyer, was credited as the world’s first sUAS to save a person’s life. Other real world applications have included in 2014 when 2014 the Draganflyer X4-ES located missing hikers lost in a heavily wooded area outside Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The deal kicked off back in 2022, when the Promo Drone team met up with the Draganfly team at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2022. At the time, Draganfly had been focusing on its static banner system which it mounted to a DJI Matrice 600 drone.

“The connection between our companies was instant and the timing was perfect,” Williams said. “They were developing a new drone which turned out to be their new Commander 3XL drone and our digital display payload would be a nice showcasing of the drone’s abilities.”

It’s worth noting, though, that Draganfly has gotten into some hot water in the past. In 2020, the company said it would use drones in Connecticut to detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, while also displaying fever, temperature, heart and respiratory rates. That level of invasive data uncovering people’s personal health status was not well received. Protestors gathered, and even the Connecticut ACLU weighed in with their own set of privacy concerns about the Draganfly temperature checking drones. Draganfly’s Safe Set Solutions product similarly detected people’s health on movie sets — though that was perhaps better received given people on set theoretically consented to being there rather than folks just walking in a public space downtown.

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Photo courtesy of Promo Drone

The drone is built with Draganfly’s Commander 3 XL airframe, which will integrate with Promo Drone’s video display technology, which includes ultra-bright LED display panels. 

As far as software goes, there’s an interesting project in the pipeline through Promo Drone’s partnership with Google for Startups to develop crowd analytic software.

While the drone is available for pre-order now, it won’t actually be publicly available until sometime in 2024.

The Starling X.2 will retail for $84,999, but orders made before the end of October qualify for a 5% discount off of the final price. Williams also said that discounts exist for veterans, active military, and public safety professionals. A $1,000, fully-refundable deposit per drone is required for pre-orders.

Who is the Promo Drone Starling X.2 for?

The launch of the Starling X.2 has given an avenue for Promo Drone to hone in on public safety and emergency response. That said, the company is still keeping a hand in its existing, strong market segments such as advertising and marketing, which Williams says remains the company’s key revenue driver.

“The platform can be adopted by media companies, event organizers and management agencies, as well as directly by the brands and venues themselves,” Williams said.

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Photo courtesy of Promo Drone

And on the public safety end, potential customers might include law enforcement, firefighters, government sectors, as well as some military opportunities.

“The Starling X.2 can be used to notify communities of impending natural events such as floods, fires, hurricanes, and other unforeseen events as part of their emergency broadcasting and early warning systems,” Williams said. “Uses also include missing persons alerts, traffic advisories, shelter in place warnings and active shooter alerts.”

Promo Drone is based in San Diego, and Draganfly is based in Canada, which might be critical for people seeking a drone made in America. Production and R&D testing occurs in Canada and the United States.  Draganfly also manufactures the Commander 3XL drone platform in the U.S. and Canada. 

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