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True North Technologies Attends AUVSI 2018

(Maynard, MA) In May, representatives from True North Technologies went to AUVSI 2018 in Denver. AUVSI is for unmanned systems and robotics and has been around for 46 years. This was purported to be the largest show yet, with 8,500 attendees and 750 exhibitors. True North attended the show looking for opportunities to sell some compasses to unmanned systems’ manufacturers and/or aggregators. In addition to the exhibit hall, there were four educational “tracks” covering policy, technology, business solutions, and trending topics. We were unable to attend those sessions due to our one-day time limitation, but we did get to hear the daily keynote speakers who talked about “The Unmanned Lifestyle” and how, like it or not, we will all have to learn how to deal with unmanned systems. In the future, either as an exhibitor or attendee, it would be valuable to take advantage of the educational content that the show offers.

Our strongest impressions after visiting the show are the following:
• This is a technology-driven industry that is still looking for problems to solve (cures looking for diseases).
• The providers range greatly in size, scope, and influence and include large military/government contractors and very small start-ups, both domestic and international.
• There is a bit of a “wild west” feel to the industry in that regulation is generally lagging product development and implementation.
• Magnetic compass use is not as a primary navigation solution but still has a role in supplementing the shortcomings of other sensors.

Technology Driven Industry

Although the industry is 46 years old, the emergence of unmanned systems as viable products seems to be a recent development. Yes, there have been unmanned rockets, weapons, manufacturing robotics, and scientific systems for many years, however driverless cars, aerial drones, vacuum cleaners, and thinking machines (e.g. Boston Dynamics “dog” robot) have only been around for the past decade. We would guess that a graph of sales revenue would have the classic hockey stick profile. Improvements in artificial intelligence, computing power, sensor fusion technology, and possibly an overabundance of engineers coming out of technical schools have contributed to this explosion, and the associated excitement was evident at the show. Finding meaningful applications and customers for all this technology may be the biggest hurdle that the industry faces.

Large Variation in Suppliers

When Boeing, General Dynamics, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, and Textron are at a show, you can rest assured that it’s an industry with some staying power. Behind these behemoths, however, were a lot of smaller companies offering either full solutions or parts, components, technical support, or services to other participants, both exhibitors and attendees. In addition, a number of international contingents were there including China, Korea, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Israel, and others.

Industry Lagging in Regulation

The commercial use of unmanned systems presents a number of harrowing possibilities when it comes to performance, safety, reliability, and (sadly) liability. Perhaps the earliest examples of unmanned systems are elevators and escalators, followed by robotics in factories, trains in airports, and vacuums in our living rooms. The unmanned systems industry of 2018, however, anticipates uses for these systems that will extend into every corner of our lives. Amazon will deliver packages by drone, Uber and Lyft (and we) will have driverless cars, the military will have machines making battlefield decisions, and your morning coffee will be brought to you by a “robarista.” Imagine the potential for mishaps, missteps, and mayhem when poorly designed, or unreliable, systems are unleashed on the general public. It may not be the fault of the machine that causes the problems but of the human that has interactions with it. Then the lawyers will step in…..as Jim Comey might say, “Lordy, Lordy.”

Magnetic compasses are not generally used as a primary navigation solution

The purpose of attending AUVSI was to determine if the TNT compass(es) can make sales inroads into unmanned systems. In light of the growth in GPS and other technologies over the past 10 years, our expectations were tempered, but we came away with a sense that magnetic compasses have a current role and one that might grow if concerns about the security of GPS continue to expand. We saw multiple vendors displaying their FOGS, IMUs, INSs, and AHRSs, touting CSWaP* and other acronyms so the field is cluttered with sophisticated but costly packages. As we spoke to exhibitors, these were the “problems” that customers said they would need to have solved, in no particular order:

FOG stabilization – short term heading while FOGs are spinning up
Supplemental navigation in areas where GPS is not available or is at risk from a security breech
Primary navigation in applications that are underwater
Pointing or stationary applications where GPS can’t accurately determine heading
Magnetic calibration of existing (other vendors’) sensors
Primary navigation in cost sensitive applications

Summary

In the past 5 years, there has been attrition in the number of companies that offer magnetic compasses like the Revolution. But what is clear is that there are still applications that require them, although not necessarily as the front-line solution to navigation. We believe that the most successful strategy will be to target a number of industries (e.g. satcom, marine, construction, unmanned, robotics, geophysical) and find customers based on the “problem” and not on the specific industry or application.

True North Technologies develops and manufactures products for marine, air, and land-based applications with a concentration in electronic compassing. True North is also a Microchip® Consultant specializing in designs utilizing Microchip Technologies’ PIC 16/17/18 micro-controllers. The company was founded in 1993 and is located in historic Clock Tower Place in Maynard, MA, the original home of Digital Equipment Corporation.

*Cost-Size-Weight and Power