Transportation

Pittsburgh-Based Company Sets Sights on Flying, Autonomous Consumer Tech

Near Earth Autonomy promises a future that includes self-driving flying taxis and groceries delivered by drone.

by Aaron Aupperlee, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / December 19, 2017

(TNS) — Near Earth Autonomy, a Pittsburgh autonomous drone and aircraft company, moved into a new facility Monday to cap a momentous 2017.

The company's new space on North Lexington Street in Point Breeze has room for it to double in size — something Near Earth could do quickly, said CEO Sanjiv Singh. Self-flying technology is advancing rapidly as new applications for it are being discovered, Singh said.

"I cannot tell you how soon drones will be delivering groceries or how soon they will be inspecting bridges at the touch of a button," Singh told a crowd gathered the large, empty office for what the company termed its re-launch Monday. "I cannot tell you when you'll be able to fly from one side of Pittsburgh to the other in a self-piloted taxi.

"But if that is what you are here for, I can tell you: you are in the right place."

The 23,000-square-foot building was once a laundry.

Now, Near Earth will build inside of it an electronics lab, a flight operations center, a staging area for aircraft, a cafeteria and offices and conference rooms for its ever-growing staff.

The 55-person company grew by 50 percent last year, Singh said. He thought their new space could accommodate more than 100 employees.

But Singh isn't stopping there. He envisioned Near Earth outgrowing the building and establishing other offices nearby.

Singh hopes the technology and partnerships Near Earth produces could lure or give rise to other autonomous aerospace companies in the same area.

"You know how we have Robotics Row down there in the Strip District," Singh said, referencing the cluster of robotics companies with offices in the Strip District and spreading into Lawrenceville and Downtown. "We could start Aviation Alley."

Near Earth makes hardware and software for self-flying drones and aircraft. Martial Hebert, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, compared the work that Near Earth Autonomy is doing on autonomous flight to the pioneering work on self-driving cars by the DARPA Grand Challenge teams a decade ago.

"Near Earth is essentially spearheading a new industry of autonomous aviation here in Pittsburgh," Hebert said. "The accomplishments are not just demonstrating cool new autonomy technology, though it is that, too.

"It is opening up new possibilities that couldn't be imagined previously."

Near Earth is a CMU spinoff company.

A big 2017

The company had a big 2017, landing deals with Boeing and Airbus.

In August, Airbus announced that Near Earth Autonomy would provide hardware for Vahana, an autonomous flying taxi the company is developing. A Vahana prototype was moved to an airfield in Oregon last month to begin testing.

Boeing partnered with Near Earth in October, and its HorizonX Ventures made a significant investment in the company. Neither Boeing nor Near Earth will disclose how much Boeing invested.

Logan Jones, managing director of new business horizons at HorizonX, said Near Earth impressed him with its team and the progress it made in the first five years.

Jones said the future of self-flying cars isn't as far off as some might think.

"I can't wait to be standing here in five years from today and talk about how this was the beginning of two companies, mostly those in the audience today, changing the world of flight and transportation together," Jones said.

And before Near Earth starts filling the new space with desks, computers, prototypes and conference rooms, Singh invited guests Monday to use it to race around mini-drones. "This is not technology that we developed," Singh said. "We just like to have some fun."

©2017 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.