Year-old ANU Startup Vai Photonics Navigates $40 Million Acquisition Deal

    Vai Photonics, a Canberra startup that emerged from the Australian National University last year to help vehicles navigate independently of GPS, has been acquired by Sydney tech company Advanced Navigation in a deal believed to be worth up to $40 million.

    Founded by physicists Lyle Roberts and James Spollard to commercialize their research, Vai Photonics has a team of seven engineers who build sensors that allow vehicles to navigate with precision and confidence when GPS is unavailable or unreliable.

    Sydney-based Advanced Navigation has been operating in the same space for more than a decade and its customers include Airbus, Boeing, Google, Apple and General Motors.

    Xavier Orr, co-founder of Advanced Navigation and co-CEO Xavier Orr, said the merger will focus them on commercializing Vai Photonics research into autonomous and robotic applications in land, air, sea and space.

    Advanced Navigation co-CEOs and co-founders Chris Shaw and Xavier Orr

    “The technology that Vai Photonics develops will be of immense importance to the emerging autonomy revolution. The synergies, shared vision and collaborative potential we see between Vai Photonics and Advanced Navigation will enable us to be at the absolute forefront of robotic and autonomy-driven technologies,” he said.

    “Photonics technology will be critical to the overall success, safety and reliability of these new systems. We look forward to sharing the next generation of autonomous navigation and robotic solutions with the global community.”

    A big challenge

    Spollard, CTO of Vai, said accurate navigation when GPS is unavailable or unreliable is a major challenge for autonomous systems.

    “Our emerging photonic sensing technology will enable positioning and navigation that is orders of magnitude more stable and accurate than existing solutions in these environments,” he said.

    “By combining laser interferometry and electro-optics with advanced signal processing algorithms and real-time software, we can measure how fast a vehicle is moving in three dimensions. This allows us to accurately measure how the vehicle moves through the environment and deduce with great precision where the vehicle is.”

    They have been working on the technology at ANU for over 15 years, solving complex autonomy challenges in aerospace, automotive, weather, space exploration, as well as railways and logistics. Applications range from electric vertical take-off and landing systems for flying taxis to space exploration.

    His co-founder and the CEO of the startup, Dr. Roberts, said it was a huge win for the team, which can now bring its product to market faster than originally planned.

    “We now have access to leading research and development facilities and strong distribution channels. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome and are looking forward to the future with Advanced Navigation.”

    ANU Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said Vai Photonics is another great example of how basic research — thinking that pushes the boundaries of what we know — translates into life-changing technology.

    “The work underlying Vai Photonics’ advanced autonomous navigation systems stems from the search for elusive gravitational waves — ripples in space and time caused by massive cosmic events such as black hole collisions,” he said.

    “The team has built on a decade of research and development in advanced and ultra-precise laser measurements, digital signals and quantum optics to build their innovative navigation technology. We are proud to have supported Vai Photonics through our Center for Gravitational Astrophysics and our corporate and commercialization office, it’s really exciting to see the team take another big step in their incredible journey.”

    The acquisition was completed last month and the Vai Photonics team has been integrated with Advanced Navigation’s research and development team at a new research facility in Canberra.

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