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4 mins read 11 May 2022

Advanced Navigation acquires ANU Photonic sensor start-up

AI and navigation technology company Advanced Navigation has announced the acquisition of Vai Photonics, a spin-out from the Australian National University for their patented photonic sensors developed for precision navigation. 

Vai Photonics co-founders Dr Lyle Roberts and James Spollard with ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt. Credit: Supplied by Advanced Navigation.

Advanced Navigation has announced the acquisition of Vai Photonics, a spin-out from the Australian National University which was founded only a year ago by physicists Dr Lyle Roberts, and PhD graduate James Spollard in a deal reportedly worth $40 million. Their future vision includes vertical rocket landings on the Moon and flying cars back on Earth.   

Artificial Intelligence (AI) robotics and navigation technology company Advanced Navigation has already made its mark on the space industry. Founded in 2012 by engineers Zavier Orr and Chris Shaw, the company produces AI-based robotics and navigation systems. It was one of the first recipients of a grant under the Federal Government’s Moon to Mars Supply Chain Capability program in 2021, awarded $690,892 to build the world’s first inertial navigation system to be used in future space missions. 

Having a former Australian Prime Minister Hon. Malcolm Turnbull serving as a Director on the Board adds an impressive gravitas to both the company and its products both domestically and globally.  

While the Vai Photonics technology has been in development over the past 10 years at ANU, their start-up is barely more than a year old. Their patented photonic sensors for precision navigation aims to solve autonomy challenges both in deep space and here on Earth. 

With both companies focused on autonomous navigation, Xavier Orr, CEO and co-founder of Advanced Navigation said that the technology Vai Photonics is developing will be of enormous 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,” Mr Orr said. 

“Photonic 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.”

James Spollard, CTO and co-founder of Vai Photonics explains the benefits of their photonic sensing technology.

“Precision navigation when GPS is unavailable or unreliable is a major challenge in the development of autonomous systems. Our emerging photonic sensing technology will enable positioning and navigation that is orders of magnitude more stable and precise than existing solutions in these environments.

“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. As a result, we can accurately measure how the vehicle is moving through the environment, and from this infer where the vehicle is located with great precision.”

Dr Roberts said it was a ‘huge win’ for the Vai Photonics team of just seven. 

“Together with Advanced Navigation, we are able to bring our product to market much faster than originally planned. We now have access to leading research and development facilities along with strong distribution channels. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome and look forward to navigating the future with Advanced Navigation.” 

Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) said it was the second successful start-up from ANU’s Centre for Gravitational Astrophysics.

“Vai Photonics is another great ANU example of how you take fundamental research – the type of thinking that pushes the boundaries of what we know – and turn it into products and technologies that power our lives.

“The work that underpins Vai Photonics’ advanced autonomous navigation systems stems from the search for elusive gravitational waves – ripples in space and time caused by massive cosmic events like black holes colliding.

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