PLEASANT GROVE — The world's largest aerospace company is betting that the micro-radar innovation coming out of Utah's Fortem Technologies will be a major player in managing the coming explosion of autonomous flying drones.
Fortem announced Thursday that Boeing is among a small group of investors in a $15 million, Series A funding round that will help the company continue to develop and expand the market for its artificial intelligence-driven TrueView radar system.
Fortem's system can simultaneously track thousands of objects — each smaller than a soda can traveling at high velocity — across a 360-degree field of view. Lightweight and low power, the company's TrueView R20 weighs only 1.5 pounds and consumes less power than an LED street light. The technology potentially enables the safe operation of autonomous flying vehicles beyond a flight manager's visual line of sight
“By cracking the difficult (visual line-of-sight) challenge, we unlock emerging forms of flight, including everything from autonomous air taxis to lifesaving deliveries.” said Timothy Bean, CEO of Fortem Technologies Inc. “With the wonderful support from all our investors and the addition of Boeing and Mubadala, Fortem can scale more quickly to simultaneously improve airspace safety and secure critical infrastructure.”
Boeing joined venture fund leader Data Collective, Mubadala Investment Co., Manifest Growth, New Ground Ventures and founding investor, Signia Venture Partners, in its effort to back Fortem. The investment comes via Boeing's HorizonX Ventures unit, continuing a penchant for identifying and investing in leading innovators in the autonomous flight sector.
HorizonX Managing Director Brian Schettler said Fortem's TrueView technology distinguished the company in a broadening field of innovators tackling autonomous drone development.
"We see this as a perfect fit," Schettler said. "We gravitated to the technology and capabilities that the Fortem team has, and what that will do to help enable a future of autonomous air vehicles."
The investment compliments other HorizonX activity in the past year, including the acquisition of air taxi vehicle developer Aurora Flight Sciences and funding support of drone navigation company Near Earth Autonomy and hybrid electric jet innovators Zunum Aero.
While the money matters on both sides of the equation — HorizonX expects to see a return on the investment and Fortem will use the capital to continue to grow — one of the biggest benefits may be in the technology sharing that comes with the fiscal partnership.
Boeing is an aerospace behemoth, with revenues in excess of $94 billion in 2017. Behind that volume of business is an expansive portfolio of assets including a supply chain that involves tens of thousands of companies, thousands of in-house engineers and hundreds of development laboratories. The company is even developing its own freight/package carrying drone that features eight propellers and a potential load capacity of 500 pounds.
Schettler said HorizonX sees its relationship with Fortem and its other investment companies as one that goes beyond the monetary transaction.
"That’s one of our key philosophies with our investments," Schettler said. "We realize a good startup can get capital from anywhere. What we want to bring is not just the check, but that technology and development cross-pollination that we can engage in with these companies."
For Fortem, Bean noted that the advantages accompanying the partnership with Boeing were enormous.
"Gaining the exposure to Boeing's vast resources as the aerospace industry's leader cannot be compared," Bean said. "The investment, coupled with the technological support, will accelerate the work we're doing exponentially."
Fortem's radar technology is poised to play a role both in the ground-based infrastructure that will be required to keep track of things when thousands of vehicles are flying overhead, as well as vehicle-installed detection systems to ensure that individual craft are operating safely while aloft.
Bean noted that while billions of investment dollars have gone, and are going, into the development of various autonomous flying vehicles, including those designed to carry cargo and others aiming to move humans around, the near-ground airspace is not yet teeming with drones. The missing element, Bean said, is a viable assurance of safe operations being made to the Federal Aviation Administration, and Fortem appears to be well-situated to be a part of that regulatory solution.
"I believe that the barrier that needs to be addressed is the safety issue," Bean said. "Working with our partners like Boeing and other air taxi customers, we’ll help prove the safety case to the regulators. Once that is established, they’ll start to provide waivers and start to expand operations."
Pleasant Grove-based Fortem has been on an incredible success arc since launching less than two years ago. The Series A funding brings the company's total venture input to around $30 million, and Bean believes the company can reach a $1 billion valuation in just a few years.