Owl AI: A Sensor Solution that Sees Everything
“Owl is the only company in the world that can generate accurate depth perception from native 2D thermal imaging using one camera. We call this monocular thermal ranging.”
Safe automated vehicle operation requires a 3D perception of the environment. Current sensor suites fall short in low- or no-light conditions and other degraded visual environments like fog or snow, putting pedestrian lives at risk.
Owl AI has created a new sensor modality that uses high-definition 3D thermal imaging with high-precision ranging. Superior to LiDAR and RADAR, Owl’s solution delivers detection, classification, range, and velocity in all environmental conditions. Chuck Gershman, Co-Founder and CEO, shares how Owl is addressing today’s most pressing automotive safety issues while facilitating the future of autonomous vehicles.
What sets Owl AI apart from competitors?
[CG] Most autonomous companies have been attempting a fusion technique, coupling three sensors — a camera, LiDAR, and RADAR. We saw shortcomings in this sensor fusion stack. There were gaps in the sensing modalities that we felt would be debilitating to systems attempting to reach a safety level necessary for true autonomy.
What sets us apart is that Owl takes computer vision techniques targeted for vision cameras and we have successfully repurposed these techniques for application in the thermal domain. Our solution produces monochrome imaging with resolution similar to what a visual camera produces. We then augment the imaging via AI/ML software, and specialty optics to transform 2D images into a 3D point cloud. We can measure the depths of objects in real time instantaneously. Owl is the only company in the world that can generate accurate depth perception from native 2D thermal imaging using one camera. We call this monocular thermal ranging.
How did your team form?
[CG] My co-founder, Gene Petilli, ran an imaging center of excellence for the Rochester branch of Intrinsix (acquired by CEVA), a design services company predominantly focused on advanced imaging. I worked for the same company out of California, which is how we connected. We worked on a U.S. Air Force challenge grant and the Intrinsix CEO asked us to evaluate the work we did to see if we could use the intellectual property in other areas. I came up with some hypotheses for automotive-focused work we could apply it to, and Gene analyzed the opportunities from a technical viability perspective.
After more product research, Gene came back with a product concept. We hired a consultant to help introduce us to the automotive industry so we could trial market the solution. We did this for a couple of months and ultimately got feedback from some serious players in the automotive space saying that our product is dramatically disruptive. Predicated on that, we incorporated a new company and Intrinsix assigned the intellectual property to it. In addition to the IP, we took over the Rochester facility and a number of key Intrinsix employees agreed to join Owl AI.
What is Owl AI focused on now?
[CG] We are working on two tangible developments. One is the 3D depth perception — what we call thermal ranging — which is driven by AI/ML software coupled with optics. We’re also developing state-of-the-art 2D thermal imaging sensors in high definition at commercial price points. Previous pilots we’ve shipped to automotive OEMs and tier-one suppliers can range to over 80 meters. Our simulations show us that with the HD camera based on our new sensors, we should be able to generate more than two times that range. Our high-definition thermal sensor chip is scheduled to prototype in the fall.
What has your startup accelerator experience been like?
[CG] This is my fifth startup, and I’ve participated in a number of accelerators, including Plug and Play and Silicon Catalyst. No two accelerators are the same, and they usually bring value in different ways. The largest value has been access to sophisticated industry advisors — when you’re faced with a certain industry dilemma, you don’t have to go it alone. You have experts to collect opinions from to help guide your decisions.
Luminate is uniquely focused on business strategy and securing funding. It’s not always obvious to people just how hard it is to structure your organization for venture funding. It’s one thing to be intriguing to VCs, but it’s another thing to have them fund. Luminate is incredibly focused on making sure you check every box, and identify and navigate any and all weaknesses that stand in the way of funding closure. Luminate also gave us access to the optics world, to the Rochester community, and the opportunity to expand relationships, grow our presence, and entice new employees. The program augments all the things necessary for high-velocity growth.
Any advice for startups or entrepreneurs?
[CG] Founding a startup is really hard. Every day you come into the office, you flick the light switch and hope that it turns on. You have to have the makeup to be able to live with risk. If you are uncomfortable with risk, then being an entrepreneur is not right for you.
You also have to be able to check your pride at the door while being very careful to project confidence without being perceived as arrogant. Because the more you know, the more you should understand that you don’t know it all. No matter the level of experience you have, you need to seek out advice from advisors and investors while always listening to all constituents, especially your customers. As an entrepreneur, you can never have enough friends or experts in your corner, and you need all the help you can get in order to be successful.