Q&A: Owl AI Making Better ADAS Systems with Help from Drones

We spoke with Owl AI CEO and co-founder Chuck Gershman about how a new technology opening up new doors for his company.

An Owl 3d thermal sensor uses a microbolometer array and has a resolution of 1M pixels. (Owl AI)

Owl AI has steadily been improving the SWaP-C (Size, Weight, Power and Cost) of the electronics in its thermal camera sensors while also improving capability. The company’s latest units have three-and-a-half times more pixel density in roughly the same size silicon area, as well as additional logic in the chip that now uses a single board versus the three-board stack used previously. We spoke with Owl AI CEO and co-founder Chuck Gershman about this improvement and how it’s opening up new doors for his company. This is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Chuck Gershman
Q: Tell me about the improvements in your sensor since we last heard from you at AutoSens in the fall of 2023.

A: The whole SWaP-C concept and the whole resolution concept were designed for ADAS applications, specifically for getting us from an L2 into an L3 and anything in between. When we showed this hardware in public at CES, we got a secondary customer base that seemed to be all over us. They weren’t asking us to build them something different. They were just asking us, “Could we apply this to our application,” and those were mini drones. The combination of SWaP-C and the resolution really got the attention of the dual-use community.”

Q: Are you hinting at the military realm here?

A: It could be military. It could be surveillance. It could be border protection. It’s anything associated with surveillance applications or any kind of reconnaissance, as well as search and rescue. We always knew that this technology would be applicable there, but we never actively marketed it. Once we showed the form factor, there was just this avalanche of interest. It doesn’t change our basic hardware design premises in any way, shape, or form. That automotive size, weight and power solution just happens to fit in small form factor drones.

Q: Those benefits apply across the board. How did you react?

A: As a smaller company, we want to stay focused, but we were kind of inundated with requests. So we are paying attention to that.

Q: How does that impact the automotive work?

A: One of the biggest negatives of trying to intersect automotive product lines [as a tier-two supplier] is simply the timeline from product commitment to product deployment. It’s a long qualification timeline. How do you generate production revenue during the qualification timeline?

We had a thesis that there were other mobility applications that could fill that revenue timeline. One of the reasons we didn’t overly market into the drone space was that we might have to do additional engineering. What we’re hearing from the drone guys is, “Just give us this, this and this as you have it, and we’ll take care of the additional engineering. Just give us access to deploy cameras on this,” and now you can fill your revenue gap. You can create incremental revenue while you support your longer-term qualification plans for automotive.

If you just go back and look at what happened in the lidar space, you’ll see this very problem. The only real lidar companies that have survived are a handful of Chinese companies where the Chinese market bought up their stuff and those who SPACed. The reason that the ones that SPACed survived was they had ample monies to cover this valley of revenue depth between proof of concept and production.

Q: Finally, new regulations are on the way regarding nighttime pedestrian protection, something a thermal camera is obviously good at. The announcement describing these rules has repeatedly been delayed. What are your thoughts on the new rules, whatever they might be?

A: The more disruption there is in the market and the more market uncertainty that’s created by that disruption, the better it is for small companies. The more that’s understood and known as a given, the better it is for incumbents. So, quite frankly, NHTSA’s playing around and screwing with people’s minds and being a little late is good for us. It creates more disruption, more uncertainty. We like uncertainty, as it relates to the market that relates to us. So, quite frankly, I’m not sweating at all. And whatever they come up with, whether it’s more rigid or less rigid than what they have there, it’s still table stakes for us. It’s easy to do. We’ve already tested it against their original proposal, and we passed all their tests with flying colors. So we’re not really sweating what the what the spec says.