In 5D Deal, “Microlocation” Startup Humatics Eyes Smart Cities, Cars

As robots become more intelligent, mobile, and prevalent in everyday life, humans will have to figure out how to coexist with these more advanced machines.

That prospect raises plenty of deep questions, but a simpler, more immediate concern is making sure mobile machines can navigate their surroundings without injuring humans or causing other kinds of damage. It’s a problem that factory and warehouse robotics companies have been working on for decades, and it’s becoming a more urgent issue in other settings as well—think driverless vehicles, package delivery robots, and drones.

“I often say if you want to understand what the city’s going to look like in 10 years, you can glimpse it in the factory,” says David Mindell, co-founder and CEO of Humatics. Factory and warehouse robots are already collaborating with humans “in safe and reliable ways today,” Mindell (pictured above) adds.

His “microlocation” technology company aims to enable better human-machine collaboration in factories and elsewhere. And earlier this week, Humatics advanced its vision with an acquisition that bolsters its set of products and sheds light on its broader strategy.

Cambridge, MA-based Humatics said it acquired Carlsbad, CA-based 5D Robotics and its subsidiary, Time Domain, located in Huntsville, AL. The purchase price wasn’t disclosed, but a recent document Humatics filed with the SEC indicates it raised $7.2 million in equity financing in connection with a “merger, acquisition, or exchange offer.” Humatics declined to comment on the document. Twenty-three 5D and Time Domain employees will join Humatics’s 25-person team, Mindell says.

The acquisition comes several months after Humatics raised $18 million in a Series A funding round led by Detroit-based Fontinalis Partners. Airbus Ventures and Lockheed Martin Ventures were among the other investors in the funding round.

Although the 5D acquisition isn’t huge, it’s worth exploring Humatics’s plans and what they might signal about where robotic navigational systems (and the industry as a whole) are headed.

Humatics has been developing a system of radio-frequency sensors and software for measuring the position of robots and other objects with millimeter precision. The company has said it can pinpoint multiple moving targets whose locations are broadcast via transponder, with a range of up to 30 meters. The transponders can be networked together—strung throughout a factory, for example, or mounted on autonomous vehicles—to provide more precise positioning at what the company says is a fraction of the cost of other technologies.

The radio-frequency approach is meant to overcome drawbacks of technologies like GPS, which is not as accurate and doesn’t work indoors, and cameras and lasers, which require data-rich maps and don’t perform as well in rain, snow, or other poor weather conditions, Humatics says.

5D and Time Domain have also developed radio frequency-based systems for locating objects, but at the centimeter level and at up to a range of 500 meters, according to a press release. Three-year-old Humatics has initially focused on industrial automation applications of its technology. Mindell says the addition of 5D and Time Domain will help it push into “the outdoor environments of mobile platforms and autonomous systems”—tracking things like driverless cars, “urban air taxis,” machines on construction sites, and “smart city” infrastructure.

“We see ourselves as providing that universal platform for positioning in a number of different arenas that really seeds a whole ecosystem of applications,” Mindell says.

Mindell says Humatics isn’t trying to replace lasers, cameras, and other types of sensors with radio frequency-based systems, but rather it aims to augment those technologies. “We don’t see ourselves as a collision avoidance technology,” he says. Humatics technology “reduces the demands on those [other] kinds of sensors, especially when you talk about robustness and reliability and safety. … For autonomous systems that are fast and powerful to go into human environments, they will need many layers of robustness.”

Humatics isn’t solely trying to enable robots to safely navigate and work alongside humans. The applications are also about data analytics, Mindell says. For example, he says, the systems might help answer questions like, “Where did my bulldozer go over the course of a construction project?” and “Where has my crane been operating?”

It’s still early days for Humatics, but the 5D acquisition seems to give its business a leg up in areas that are seeing a lot of investment. While Humatics has signed paid pilot agreements with early customers, Mindell says, its technology is still being prepped for a broader commercial launch. On the other hand, 5D and Time Domain have a number of products on the market and more experience with sales and marketing, Mindell says. 5D was founded in 2009 by researchers who worked at the Idaho National Laboratory, and in 2016 it acquired Time Domain, which has been around for more than 25 years.

The acquisition also significantly expands the startup’s intellectual property. Humatics has been issued three patents and applied for eight more, according to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office website. 5D and Time Domain have a combined 100-plus patents that have been awarded or filed, according to 5D’s website.

The deal “instantly transforms us from a startup with products in development and pilot partners and great investors to … now, we’ve also got products on the market and mature technology out there that we’re going to continue to build our software platform around,” Mindell says.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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