Advanced Navigation is building on its reputation for making ground-breaking inertial navigation systems for land, sea and air. Billy Friend catches up with CEO and co-founder Xavier Orr to learn about the company’s core products and how AI research at university led to deals with Google, Apple and Airbus.
In 2008, Xavier Orr was digging deep into the world of neural networks in his final year of artificial intelligence studies at the University of Western Australia. He discovered navigation systems in our phones, cars and homes were using an algorithm from 1967, known as the Kalman filter.
This prompted the student to explore an alternative approach to the outdated technology – he completed his thesis on a neural network AI approach to navigation. Like any bright idea, it needs a whole lot of work before it is ready to be commercialised, so Orr spent the next couple of years honing in on the concept.
In 2012, Orr met with co-owner Chris Shaw to commercialise the technology and Advanced Navigation was born. Advanced Navigation began with inertial navigation systems and continued to broaden its scope to sonar and photonics.
Today, the Australian-based company is making moves in the futuristic worlds of self-driving cars, aerial drones, space launch vehicles and robotics. The algorithm can be used with sensors in any environment, opening up a huge range of applications for the technology.
Advanced Navigation sensor products are sold into commercial and defence industries spanning sea, land, air and space. Two manufacturing facilities in Sydney as well as a larger factory in Perth work in conjunction with sub-contractors around the country to make the innovative range of products.
The company’s AI approach allows its solutions to have greater accuracy and reliability while maintaining a small form factor. Today, Advanced Navigation’s solutions are adopted by some of the world’s largest technology companies and defence prime contractors, including Thales, BAE Systems, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
“Defence is one of the many sectors we serve, our products are well suited because they are designed to aerospace standards,” Orr said.
“They weren’t designed specifically for defence but the applications of the products are where reliability is absolutely critical. They’ve been built to that extreme level which is why they’re suited to defence as well as commercial markets.”
From farfetched perceptions not long ago, driverless cars, ground robots delivering mail and air taxis are on the horizon. Solène Le Bris at Paris airports operator Groupe ADP recently announced ambitions to launch the first e-VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) pre- commercial service in the world in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The initiative will use the existing helicopter route network to fly with one passenger and one pilot along two routes, taking short rides from Charles de Gaulle airport to Le Bourget then to a new landing pad at Austerlitz Paris, and another route from Paris to Sans-Cyr.
As for driverless cars, predictions of the technology being more commonplace have been around for years, to which Orr noted that regulatory hurdles are the last bridge to cross.
“I think we’re going to see the regulatory walls come down in the next five years,” he said. “We’ll start to see strong adoption for driverless cars. Advanced Navigation supplies to pretty much all the fully autonomous cars right now, so we will obviously grow as the market grows.”
As for Australia, Orr said it’s an exciting time for automation and robotics.
“We are starting to adopt the technology more,” he said. “We’re seeing the drone delivery trials in Canberra. The Civil Aerospace Safety Authority (CASA) are starting to allow beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations for the first time and we’re seeing driverless car trials across Australia.
“There’s a lot of government funded programs supporting automation and robotics, and we’re seeing a lot of uptake which is really exciting.”
Being at aerospace and automotive quality control level for its products, testing is of utmost importance. Orr explained that there can be anywhere up to 300 individual tests run on one component before it leaves the factory.
“A lot of the components in our factories and manufacturing houses areis automated all the way from manufacturing through to the quality assurance and testing. We want to minimise the handling time but also really increase the level of quality assurance through automation.”
At the core, Advanced Navigation is determined to be the catalyst of the autonomy revolution. Orr and his team have experienced a rapid rise, which was accentuated by a $108 million Series B funding round at the end of last year.
Leading global investment firm KKR announced the funding included participation from new investors such as deep learning venture firm AI Capital and existing investors, including Main Sequence and the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull AC.
With the latest Series B raise, Orr said he expects to spend a significant amount of R&D funding working in-house and with engineering experts, partners and global institutes on robotic, photonic and quantum sensing technologies.
“We’ve experienced 100 per cent growth for the last few years and seen really strong adoption,” he explained.
“With extreme levels of interest for products developed in the last year it felt like the right time to do a big expansion to grow our international sales and support the disruptive products we have in development.
“This next phase of growth is to help us be a driving force in the autonomy revolution. KKR has significant experience investing in emerging technologies, so we are thrilled to have them lead our Series B funding round and work alongside our team to advance our product and technology innovation and development.”
The funding follows a $20 million Series A round in 2020 led by Main Sequence Ventures’ CSIRO Innovation Fund, which supported a global expansion for Advanced Navigation to accelerate research and development programs for transformative new robotics, navigation, and sensor technologies.
“We are really excited to be pushing forward on our mission to catalyse the autonomy revolution,” Orr added. “There’s a lot going on in Australia right now with autonomy and robotics and Advanced Navigation is really at the forefront of a lot of that. This funding allows us to really turbo charge us on our mission.”
The mission to the moon
The demand for autonomous spacecraft is increasing as space exploration becomes more commercialised, and the push for easier engagement of the cosmic frontier continues. Given the harsh environmental conditions that come with space exploration, the Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) system of autonomous crafts have to make rational decisions on- the-fly.
Advanced Navigation has developed its patent-pending light detection altimetry and velocimetry (LiDAV) technology – a revolutionary sensor package for space exploration offering accuracy and reliability several orders of magnitude over current industry standards.
LiDAV uses photonics technology to provide accurate and instantaneous motion information while being totally immune to interference at both the physical and software levels. When visual references are unavailable and cameras fail due to lack of light, dust and other obscurities, LiDAV will provide primary navigation input.
The system provides far greater amounts of useful data than traditional sensors while being lightweight, making it a crucial component for performing complex autonomous landing procedures and confidently exploring the lunar surface.
Advanced Navigation is partnering with US space exploration company Intuitive Machines to deliver scientific and technology payloads to the lunar surface, as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. With significant weight advantages over comparable technologies, LiDAV is estimated to deliver $85 million in value for lunar missions.
“The team is absolutely thrilled to see years of research in development progress into successful technology. We look forward to being the first Australian company to reach the Moon in early 2023 and 2024, this will be a huge milestone for us,” Orr said.
“It has the ability to have quite profound impacts here on earth as well with things like plane navigation for take-off and landing, the flying taxi market, and even improving weather prediction.”
LiDAV is not the only system developed by Advanced Navigation for space exploration.
The Boreas X90 is another patented technology which enables positioning and navigation capable of maintaining extreme precision without using relatively fixed references, such as stars, or requiring base station control telemetry. The strategic grade inertial navigation system (INS) will be crucial for long endurance space missions involving complex orbits and trajectories.
The development of the Boreas X90 was supported by the Australian Space Agency through its Moon to Mars Initiative: Supply Chain Capability Improvement Grant.
Orr noted that Advanced Navigation’s acquisition of Vai Photonics – a spin-out from the Australian National University – has enabled the company to commercialise research into exciting autonomous and robotic applications across land, air, sea, and space.
A general trend in drone technology over the past decade has been an increase in autonomy, and more acceptance and trust from industry to deploy these autonomous solutions.
In the subsea space, however, things are moving much slower, with only incremental changes made to vehicles which have been around for decades. Advanced Navigation is changing this, bringing the drone revolution underwater.
Solving this challenge was largely in part to Advanced Navigation’s ability to work with manufacturers of uncrewed and autonomous systems, as well as the customers of navigation positioning technologies and geospatial data. Standing next to industry helps to create more rapid solutions like its autonomous underwater robot, Hydrus.
Venturing underwater brings tremendous pressure without access to the internet or GPS – the best way to communicate is through sound. The idea for Hydrus stemmed from Advanced Navigation’s sonar and navigation equipment being sold to be installed on other underwater vehicles, which were cumbersome and difficult to use, requiring large ships and qualified crews to operate.
As a fully autonomous underwater drone, Hydrus is programmable straight out of the box, can venture 3000 metres below sea level, and is equipped with advanced sonar, navigation and communications systems. It has a web interface that makes it simple to plan and execute underwater missions in three dimensions.
Crucially, the drone is compact and lightweight enough to be launched by a solo operator, allowing for surveying wind farms, underwater mine detection and classification, routine surveillance and other activities.
“Users of subsea data don’t want to be dealing with these really complex systems to get hold of that data,” Orr explained.
“Hydrus is a tool that will actually deliver the data that people want, and it really is the start of the drone revolution.”
Hydrus is equipped with a cinema- grade 4K 60fps camera combined with an AI engine that can analyse image quality and adjust lighting in real-time. Its compact size and minimal weight make it easy to launch and carry-on when flying, even by a single person.
Developing the drone involved significant challenges, including shrinking the technology down to fit within the small size of the drone and adapting to an underwater environment, requiring a significant change in mechanical engineering.
“Anywhere you want to capture data, it can go down and capture it far more quickly, cost effectively and safely than has ever been possible before,” Orr said.
“Waterways such as the Sydney Harbour require inspections almost quarterly, surveying bridge footings, electric cables, water pipes and any infrastructure touching the water. This is the first teatherless, handheld device where all you need to do is grab it out of the water. It’s super easy, quick and safe.”
To make informed decisions about sustainable ocean resource use, data on a greater scale and magnitude is needed more than ever before.
Hydrus has the potential to help discover why the most significant climate change events in the ocean are occurring, such as CO2 absorption, reef bleaching, new diseases, loss of sea life and biodiversity, coastal erosion, and fishery decline.
It can monitor the Great Barrier Reef, build maps of world ocean heritage sites, inspect underwater infrastructure and fish farms, and identify new marine life. Mitigating against the complexity and cost of collecting underwater
data can help to restore the health of our oceans.