In 1985, Sanjiv Singh worked on the first autonomous ground vehicles to operate outdoors. By 2010, he led a team that demonstrated the first autonomous full-scale helicopter flight. Now he's with Near Earth Autonomy, pushing the envelope in autonomy for aerial vehicles both manned and unmanned.
The company has received many forms of funding since its launch, including grants, corporate accelerator and VC investments. To determine which funding and opportunities to pursue and when, Singh says they have some ground rules that help he and his team think it through.
"We don't look at everything as an ad hoc thing," Singh says. "Generally, we don't what is called work for hire in that sense that somebody comes, we do R&D for them and they own the technology, because then what's happened there is that we can't take that technology anywhere else. We've just basically done work for somebody else. There are many people who come talk to us, given our status in the field, our positioning in the field. And that's one thing that we just don't go there."
They also prefer to have customers only pay for the demonstration — the applications of the technology in their world — because if they haven't paid for the development of technology, it's harder for them to insist on exclusivity or field of use.
When choosing to pursue government programs, he says they tend pick those that are aligned with the company's roadmap.
Recently, the company received a $10 million investment from Kaman Corp. Singh says Near Earth has had a good working relationship with Kaman, which came about serendipitously because Kaman was looking for a partner to do what Near Earth does. Jointly, they were able to receive some government funding to advance the state of the art. Near Earth then began talking to Kaman's management about a new aircraft they wanted to build that was going to be autonomous from the ground up, rather than a manned aircraft that would need to be converted. The joint project interested Singh's team. It also seemed as if it would help them pass an important landmark.
"Where we are going with the investment is that we're working in that third phase, which has to do with commercialization, which is really actually the part that is the funding that you need to cross that valley of death," Singh says. "Often with hardware development, there are people who are interested in the front end to be the proof of principle, and those people who are interested in backend to buy it. But what is missing often is that investment to actually take something that's been proven in concept and make it into a product."
Singh spoke on the Smart Business Dealmakers Podcast about the evolution of the technology, the company's fundraising and the obstacles that must be conquered in order to reach broader commercial adoption of autonomous flight technology.