Boeing’s HorizonX venture capital arm signaled that it’s doubling down on autonomous flight technologies by participating in a $15 million funding round for Utah-based Fortem Technologies, which sells a miniaturized detect-and-avoid radar system for drones.
The investment was announced today, less than two weeks after Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said self-flying air taxis “will happen faster than any of us understand.”
Boeing has placed some big bets on the technology over the past year — including the acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences, which is working on an all-electric, autonomous air taxi, and an earlier HorizonX investment in Near Earth Autonomy.
Fortem Technologies’ TrueView radar system is designed to help unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs, detect and avoid other airborne objects beyond visual line of sight. It’s a key capability that’ll be required for future applications such as Amazon’s drone delivery system.
Steve Nordlund, vice president of Boeing HorizonX, said the technology is key to Boeing’s ambitions as well.
“Radar technology is a necessary and trusted element as we continue to strengthen autonomy capabilities for a variety of commercial and urban mobility applications,” he said in a news release. “Safety is paramount in our approach to the responsible introduction of future air vehicles. Fortem’s radar systems will help as we pave the path to emerging markets of autonomous flight.”
TrueView can simultaneously track thousands of objects down to below the size of a soda can, across a 360-degree field of view. The system weighs only 1.5 pounds and consumes less power than an LED street light.
Fortem was founded two years ago in Salt Lake City. This Series A round was led by Data Collective (DCVC). In addition to Boeing, the round’s other investors include Mubadala Investment Company, Manifest Growth, New Ground Ventures and Signia Venture Partners.
Boeing HorizonX didn’t disclose how much it contributed to the $15 million round, but its investments are typically in the range of seven figures to low eight figures.
Fortem CEO Timothy Bean said the new investment will help his company “scale more quickly to support continuous improvements in airspace safety.”
“We look forward to continue working with Boeing as they develop autonomous air vehicles,” Bean said.
In addition to providing radar systems for other people’s drones, Fortem markets its own drone that makes use of the TrueView system. Fortem’s DroneHunter UAV is optimized to detect intruder drones and snare them in nets.
Competition in the drone sensor market is likely to heat up as the Federal Aviation Administration considers how to handle drone flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight. Last year, the FAA set up a pilot program to expand the envelope for such flights in up to five communities on an experimental basis.
One of the other companies targeting the market for drone-sized, detect-and-avoid radar systems is Bellevue, Wash.-based Echodyne, which is taking advantage of metamaterlals technology pioneered nearby at Intellectual Ventures.
Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen were among the investors contributing to Echodyne’s $29 million Series B funding round last year.