Research News

UB-affiliated startup raises $900,000 to advance driverless boat technology

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published April 12, 2018

headshot of Thiru Vikram
“It aids the human crew that is operating the ship in making safer and more fuel-efficient decisions.”
Thiru Vikram, co-founder and CEO
Buffalo Automation

Buffalo Automation, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup that is developing technology for self-navigating boats, has secured $900,000 in seed funding from investors — significantly more than the $700,000 the company set out to raise early this year.

The investments will enable the company to expand pilots of its innovative product — a system called AutoMate that integrates real-time sensor data about waterways with static information such as nautical charts to enable vessels to pilot themselves.

The technology is similar to the self-driving systems that high-tech companies, such as Waymo and Otto, and traditional automakers, such as General Motors and Ford, are racing to develop for roads. AutoMate could improve the safety of commercial shipping and recreational boating by enabling early detection of obstacles in the water, such as other boats and debris, and also save fuel with algorithms that enable more efficient routes.

The company, led by CEO and co-founder Thiru Vikram, is currently piloting its AutoMate system with three shipping companies — two North American lake freighter operators and an international container liner.

The $900,000 in new investment is the latest milestone for Buffalo Automation, which was founded in 2015 by UB engineering students.

The company has quickly gained recognition as one of the region’s promising startups, winning UB’s Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition (Panasci TEC) in 2016 and securing a $25,000 investment from Launch NY and Z80 Labs the same year.

UB has fostered Buffalo Automation’s growth through programs that provide business coaching and nurture entrepreneurship on campus. Mentors from the university guided the company’s early research on autonomous boat technology, and today the company’s team includes several UB graduates. The firm exemplifies how UB and partners are working with startups to grow the region’s knowledge economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Buffalo Automation demonstrates the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of members of the UB community,” says Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a member of Buffalo Automation’s advisory board. “Self-driving technology has been an area of intense interest for automakers, and Buffalo Automation saw an opportunity to bring this cutting-edge technology to the water, helping to make vessels of all kinds safer. With support from the university and other partners, the company has developed a promising system that is attracting significant interest in the maritime industry.”

A successful seed-funding round

Buffalo Automation’s latest funding round was led by the Jacobs Family, owners of Delaware North, through their investment vehicle Deeridge Group LLC. Other investors included Gerald Lippes, founder and senior partner of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman; Ted Pierce, an investment manager who runs Gaylord Smythe LLC; and John Somers, president, CEO and owner of Harmac Medical Products. Z80 Labs made a follow-on investment of $100,000.

“Buffalo Automation is a great example of Buffalo’s burgeoning high-tech, entrepreneurial-driven economy, which UB is helping to lead. My siblings and I are impressed by the company’s talented leadership and proven innovative spirit,” says Jerry Jacobs Jr., co-CEO of Delaware North.

“Vikram and his team at Buffalo Automation have navigated the Buffalo startup scene skillfully, and we are happy to support his next phase of growth,” says Jon Spitz, Z80 Labs managing director.

“I have had the pleasure of working closely with Vikram from the early days, watching him and his team continue to grow Buffalo Automation and, along the way, watching him put another exclamation point on the talent and resources that make the Western New York community such an exciting place for entrepreneurship,” says Scott E. Friedman, chairman and CEO of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman and manager of Buffalo Capital Partners, a venture capital group comprised of Jacobs Jr., Pierce, Lippes and other prominent local business leaders. Friedman is a member of Buffalo Automation’s advisory board.

Revolutionizing the marine industry

Many people are familiar with the concept of driverless cars, which travel autonomously from Point A to Point B while detecting and avoiding obstacles on the road.

Buffalo Automation aims to bring a version of this technology to the water, improving the safety of freighters and other vessels.

AutoMate technology can be incorporated onto existing vessels. Like traditional autopilot systems, it enables ships to chart and navigate a path from one port to another.

But AutoMate also detects threats along the chosen route, using onboard sensors, cameras and wireless communications, such as AIS, an automatic identification system for tracking ships, to identify and steer around obstacles ranging from swimmers and recreational boats to other large vessels — all while staying on course.

Radar and LIDAR enable AutoMate to “see” from about five feet around the boat to 24 nautical miles out, and the system automatically adjusts to rough waters. Its navigation techniques are based on algorithms that are trained, using machine learning, with data gathered from ships during challenging maritime conditions.

“This is a state-of-the-art system that can see at night, in pitch-black darkness,” says CEO and co-founder Vikram. “It’s more accurate than human eyes. We have HD thermal cameras that capture 360 degrees of the surrounding environment. Our neural networks, which have been trained to recognize various types of vessels and navigation signs, help AutoMate make maneuvers compliant with COLREGS and other rules of navigation. It aids the human crew that is operating the ship in making safer and more fuel-efficient decisions.

“Self-navigation technology will increase safety by preventing vessel collisions and other accidents, such as oil spills, that devastate the environment and cost billions in losses,” he says. “We can also prevent what are known in the maritime industry as allisions, where ships collide with stationery objects, such as docks or canal walls. The damage is usually not newsworthy, but such incidents still cost ship operators many thousands of dollars in repairs and lost revenues every year. All this can be avoided.”

Close ties to UB

Buffalo Automation’s close ties to UB have fueled the company’s growth.

“Buffalo Automation is a testament to UB’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship among members of the UB community,” says Christina Orsi, associate vice president for economic development. “From its early roots in conducting research on robotic, self-piloting technology to its collaboration with the Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships team at UB and the Western New York Incubator Network (WIN), ideas were nurtured and challenged. Vikram and his team worked alongside seasoned mentors, experienced entrepreneurs and big thinkers.”

In its early days, Buffalo Automation operated out of the UB Technology Incubator’s tenX co-working space, which supports early-stage entrepreneurs by providing an affordable work environment and free business coaching.

Bina Ramamurthy, research associate professor of computer science and engineering, guided the initial work of the company’s student founders as they conducted research on the concept of self-navigation for boats through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities at UB.

The founders — including Vikram, who has taken a leave of absence from UB to focus on the startup full time — won Panasci TEC and placed highly in several contests organized or co-sponsored by WIN, which is run by Thomas Murdock from the Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships team at UB. These included the UB elevator pitch competition in 2014 (third place), Buffalo Startup Weekend in 2014 (third place), the Buffalo Student Sandbox in 2015 (first place) and the WNY Student 2 Biz Challenge in 2016 (first place). The team also won the Information Technology/Software category in the 2016 New York Business Plan Competition for student-led teams across the state.

Through these competitions, Buffalo Automation honed its pitch to investors, networked with other members of Buffalo’s startup community and gained access to valuable resources, such as grants, mentoring and advice on business strategy.

The partnership between the company and UB remains strong today: UB student interns working for the startup are subsidized by the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) administered by The Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) at UB. SPIR is a SUNY program that provides companies access to technical support.