Startups Offer Emerging Military Technology
Pitch meeting reveals new technologies for communications, aerospace and transportation applications.
Entrepreneurs developing products for entry into the aerospace and military industry in the next one to three years are focusing on improved battery efficiencies, 3-D metal printed antennas, software for manufacturing improvements and drone delivery applications, among other cutting-edge technologies.
Trying to break into the potentially lucrative market of aerospace, the prospective business men and women presenting their nascent product ideas and discoveries at a pitch meeting hosted by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on October 5 are searching for venture capital investments and partnership, positing that their technologies will be, if not groundbreaking, useful and more efficient.
Paris-based Starburst Aerospace Accelerator orchestrated the event, bringing in nine hopeful companies, to pair them with interested corporations, investors and government agencies. DARPA, which takes its $3 billion annual budget to invest in high-risk, high-payoff research and development (R&D) for technologies designed to heighten national security, had sponsored four of the presenting companies in its earlier DARPA Performers programs. The companies, all vying for partnership agreements and venture capitalist funding, included:
Detroit, Michigan-based ASX is developing a passenger electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, called MOBi—that sort of resembles a George Jetson-like flying pod. The company is currently hammering out a term sheet for an investment by Uber for on-demand air travel services, and is seeking partnerships with Lyft, Blade and regional air taxis. The company claims that MOBi has a range of 62 nautical miles, can carry 4 passengers and 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of cargo. “MOBi will offer commuters with fast, cheap, emission-free, safe and quiet on-demand air mobility alternative to road travel between airports and greater metropolitan areas,” John Rimanelli, founder and CEO at ASX. The swappable payload module allows for military applications, such as for cargo, medevac or other military transportation needs.
Seeking cost advantages, the company is looking to harness Detroit's existing industrial supplier base to produce the electric vehicle and autonomous components. Initially, the flying pods will employ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified pilots, but the technology will later be “optionally piloted.” Currently, ASX is in the design and development phase, flight-testing multiple sub-scale prototypes. The company and its airframe partner plan to unveil a full-scale development version in 2018, and aims for production of MOBi in 2020.
- Corvidair Inc. – drone delivery specialist
Co-founder of Corvidair Star Simpson had developed—through a DARPA program and Otherlab, a San Francisco-based independent R&D lab—a disposable drone, known as Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA). Made from biodegradable cardboard, ASPARA, with a 10-kilogram (22-pound) payload, was designed for one-way deliveries of critical lightweight cargo such as medicine.
Simpson, also famous for TacoCopter Inc.—the beta test of drones that deliver tacos to customers in the Bay Area—is now turning her attention to a heartier drone with a 110-pound payload and 500-mile range. These drones, she said, would carry value-dense payloads, with time critical needs, from remote places with no available airstrip. She is focusing on the aerodynamics of the unmanned aircraft, especially the vertical takeoff requirements and self-launching capabilities. “Since batteries are just good enough, aerodynamics are very important,” Simpson observed.
Cuberg is working to develop next-generation battery technology through “new battery chemistry,” says Richard Wang, Cuberg’s CEO and co-founder. “Our batteries can power high-endurance solar UAVs, undersea drones, rockets, landers and any other aerospace applications that require excellent specific energy, shelf life and/or high temperature use—including soldier packable applications.” The battery’s stable electrolyte with lithium metal anode reportedly provides greatly improved safety, along with 80% more energy than li-ion batteries. The company is using off the shelf commercially available lithium ion.
The company is in the prototype development stage and hopes to produce prototype cells by end of this year and then pursue technology licensing once the product is proven.
The Pasadena, California-based company specializes in high spectral purity microwave oscillators for use in radar, communication, precision timing, navigation and other aerospace applications. The oscillators, which can be rack mounted, apparently have the highest commercially available spectral purity, hQphotonics’ Co-founder Jiang Li says. It can detect much lower level noise. The hQphotonics microwave source uses a new technique called electro-optical frequency division (EOFD) that was invented by the company co-founders while at Caltech.
The company began with a microwave oscillator prototype (15-40 GHz) with ultra-low-phase-noise in 2016, and then produced and shipped oscillators to customers in 2017. The patented optical technology can be further miniaturized and the company is “developing a much smaller footprint system that is suitable for airborne applications,” Li notes.
MixComm is developing wireless millimeter-wave hardware for the emerging Wireless Gigabit (WiGig) and 5G markets, including complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) memory chipsets, antennas-in-package and integrated baseband PHY (physical layer circuitry) implementations. The growing WiGig network is an alternative to the current congested wireless communication network and offers multi-gigabit per second speed wireless communications on the unlicensed 60 GHz frequency. The Chatham, New Jersey-based company’s power amplifier technology allows for greater range of the WiGig network.
“MixComm’s patented high-power millimeter-wave power amplifier technology enables 10 times higher output power than the state of the art, and two to five times higher efficiency, leading to higher range and lower C-SWAP,” according to the company. Its channel bonding technology allows for extreme data rates (>20 Gbps), which enables the tether-less virtual-reality links, uncompressed transmission of 8K video, and other high bandwidth and low latency applications. MixComm ’s use of off-the-shelf commercial CMOS technology for defense applications aims to leverage economies of scale and reduce hardware costs. Aerospace applications include: repurposing the technology for radar, satellite communications and high-data-rate ad-hoc or point-to-point wireless links.
The San Francisco, California-based company is developing space-based hyper spectral imaging and analysis. The technology will provide near real-time monitoring capabilities for oil and gas leaks for the energy industry. “OSK’s hyper spectral sensors collect hundreds of narrow contiguous color bands from visible light through infrared, providing a unique chemical fingerprint for each pixel in the data set,” according to the company.
Orbital Sidekick is working to acquire customers. The technology is currently integrated on an aircraft that images energy infrastructure in San Francisco. The company also aims to integrate the system onto the International Space Station in the first quarter of 2018.
Using powered aluminum and a 3-D printer, Optisys fabricates antenna and radio frequency (RF) designs, which according to the company, are 10-100 times smaller than traditional RF hardware. Reportedly, the additive production method allows for shorter lead times for complex antenna structures. “Optisys is the first and only company to combine antenna design, mechanical design and metal 3-D printing to create the lightest and smallest antennas in the industry,” says Michael Hollenbeck, chief technology officer of Optisys. “We produce military ruggedized production parts, and create ‘impossible to machine’ structures using the 3-D printing.” Given the weight reductions, the antennas are ideal for airborne communications, UAV, satellites and soldier portable applications.
The Salt Lake City, Utah-based company has designed and tested multiple prototypes in the research and development process and for customers. They have tested the designs to an aerospace-level frequency of 50 GHz.
The Dayton, Ohio-based company is developing a so-called “intelligent” fiber-array (INFA) laser transmitter system. The high-energy laser has seven apertures and comes in lightweight, scalable modules of 1.5 kW. It includes a wave-optics simulation tool, the graphics processing unit (GPU)-based wave optics numerical analysis toolbox (WONAT) software.
The INFA “photonics building blocks can be used to assemble adaptive laser beam transceiver systems, scalable in both aperture size and transmitted power, with efficient adaptive compensation of turbulence, aero-optics, heat and jitter-induced effects,” said Tom Tumolillo, chief operating officer of Optonicus.
The company successfully field demonstrated the INFA technology for DARPA in 2016 and is working to increase sales of the WONAT software and INFA laser to DOD prime contractors in 2017. Applications for the system includes: directed energy, remote sensing, laser communications, laser target tracking, active imaging, remote powering, and laser additive manufacturing and material processing.
The Somerville, Massachusetts-based Tulip, has created industrial software (known as it Manufacturing App Platform) and hardware tools that interact with devices, sensors and existing shop floor equipment to advance manufacturing process improvement. Manufacturers can quickly create applications that integrate factory floor processes to yield quality improvements, reduction in training costs and improved machine monitoring.
“We harness the power of the industrial ‘Internet of Things' and advanced analytics to the manufacturing work force through an application platform,” according to the company. “This revolutionary self-service technology fills the gap between rigid back-end manufacturing information technology systems and the dynamic operations taking place on the shop floor."
The Tulip products use intelligent hardware sensors, computer vision, assistive user interfaces and applied machine learning. For its business model, the company is pursuing the licensing of the software as a service, and is selling the hardware tools to connect to any device or machine. “If you make things that involve people, we can help you,” Tulip Co-founder Rony Kobat said.