More than 12,000 miles above us, satellite constellations orbit the earth to make sure the blue dot on our smartphone map can lead us straight to the closest Starbucks. But how many times has that same blue dot sent your Uber driver to the wrong corner?
The problem with most consumer GPS devices is that they are unable to pinpoint your exact location, and can be off by several yards. Swift Navigation set out to resolve this accuracy problem in 2012 and succeeded in bringing their solution to market only two years later. Piksi, the startup's software-based GPS device, makes inch-level precision possible at about a sixth of the price of commercial solutions. The high-accuracy GPS kit sells for $995; the Piksi module can also be purchased on its own for $495. Swift's products are sold directly to consumers online, but the startup also works with businesses that need some level of customization to adapt the technology to their needs or integrate it to existing systems.
Swift Navigation founders Colin Beighley, 27, and Fergus Noble, 28, met at Silicon Valley startup Joby Energy, where they worked together on a project for kite-like airborne wind turbines. They soon realized there were no products on the market to meet their performance requirements, so they began creating a prototype of their own. As they got a head start in their research for a low-cost, high-precision GPS, Joby merged with Makani Power, which in 2011 was acquired by Google. While most of their co-workers transitioned to working with Google X's wind turbine project, Beighley and Noble decided to leave behind the prospect of becoming Googlers and to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
"We started to really focus on making the GPS we were developing at Joby Energy something more useful for the autonomous vehicle, autonomous systems, and robotics industry at large," says Beighley. "We worked quite literally out of a barn for about a year and a half."
Although certainly in a bucolic setting, the barn was not part of a typical farm but a startup incubator ranch outside Santa Clara. Then there was a four-month stint in a garage in Vietnam, after U.K.-born Noble's intern visa ran out (because, why not get all the work done from Southeast Asia, where you can also have a great time?), before the duo returned to California. It was there, at a tiki bar in Ventura, that Beighley met Tim Harris, 29, Swift's soon-to-be third co-founder and CEO.
Harris, a former lawyer, says, "I was looking to do something a little different where I could really focus on building something. I was taken aback by the sheer potential of this level of localization and navigation and all the potential it held for new industries."
At first, Swift started developing the technology with the fast growth of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone) demand in mind, but quickly realized there was a much broader use for the company's innovation. As Swift's Kickstarter campaign took off, demand from potential customers in several different industries started cropping up. Just two hours after the crowdfunding campaign went live on September 2013, Swift reached its $14,000 funding goal; two months later, the company closed with more than $150,000 in backing.
Swift Navigation customers use the startup's software-based GPS solutions for autonomous devices and machines, as well as agricultural surveys and mapping. Environment and Climate Change Canada researcher and "snow scientist" Joshua King is one such customer in need of higher location accuracy. He bought a Piksi receiver for a project with Operation IceBridge, a NASA mission that monitors changes in ice and snow depth through airborne surveys and that works in collaboration with King's agency in the Canadian Arctic's Eureka Sound.
"We just got back from the field and the data looks great," King says. "It was -32 degrees Celsius and the system worked well for us." He adds, "It was within our budget. A full RTK [GPS] system can be pretty expensive and not necessarily easy to integrate into a system that you already have."
After bootstrapping its way through the first couple hundred thousand dollars in revenue, Swift Navigation started looking for outside funding. In a seed round led by First Round Capital, Swift secured $2.6 million in 2014, and then raised an additional $11 million last December with Lior Susan and Pierre Lamond from Eclipse Ventures leading the Series A round. The startup now has more than 1,500 customers, and its team has grown to 45 people.
Todd Humphreys is assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and director of UT Austin's Radionavigation Laboratory, where he has led pioneering research on low-cost precision GPS. He has predicted that a revolution in geolocation is only several years away.
"Swift is, I think, leading the revolution at this point," Humphreys says. "They are the best-funded early movers."
Although continuing to cater to a wide range of uses, including drones and robotics systems, Swift is now focusing the greater part of its efforts on automated driving and facilitating the achievement of target zero (or vision zero)--the international plan for zero automotive-related deaths--and contributing to the advancement of autonomous transportation.
"Swift Navigation needs to come down [in price] by factor of five to 10," Humphreys says. "I was just speaking to auto manufacturers last week, and they are willing to buy a $50 solution, but they are not willing to buy a $500 to $1,000 solution. And Swift understands this, and it's looking for lower-cost alternatives."
It also faces competition. Russian startup Emlid has recently made a high-precision, low-cost GPS available on the market, while leading chip manufacturer U-blox has just made its component available for presale starting at $199.
But Swift Navigation is already looking to the future. "We have two really exciting products coming out this year," says Noble. One would be the next generation of the Piksi, but the co-founders are keeping most of the details for both products under wraps.