Chris Shaw: From Drone Navigation To Satellite Technology

Advanced Navigation is an Australian company that specialises in the development and manufacturing of navigation technologies and robotics. The company has a focus on generating products of the highest quality standard, both in terms of hardware and software.

Advanced Navigation has specialised expertise across a broad range of fields including sensors, GNSS, inertial navigation, RF technologies, acoustics, robotics, AI and algorithms.

We chatted with co-founder and co-CEO Chris Shaw, to talk about his background as an engineer, from his time as a student in Western Australia, to building a global company.

Can you walk us through your personal story, as a technologist and a founder?

So my educational background is that I studied a Bachelor of Engineering and Commerce at university, majoring in Electronic Engineering, Finance and Management. However, while I was in Uni, I tended to be less interested in classes and all of the associated activities, and more focused on building side hustles.

At Uni I was involved with a number of engineering programs, such as the Formula SAE, which involves building an open-wheel race car and taking it to a competition in Australia. I was fortunate that the team I was on was very successful.

When we won in Australia, we went to the World Championships against over 160 other colleges and we beat international Universities that were far more well-funded than us. It was exciting to be a little team from the University of Western Australia team that managed to take it to the world stage.

I'd say it really grounded me in practical engineering and design. Things that were designed to work rather than all the theoretical theory, you get bombarded with at university. You learn quickly in such a high-pressure situation where you have to spin things up fast and you shoot yourself in the foot if you try for that extra 1% in performance at the expense of reliability.

I also had some passion projects. Music is something that I'm really passionate about, so I started a company selling guitar apps and guitar pedals and made them in my parents' backyard.

I was fortunate in that I was able to work for a few tech firms, one of which was a startup in the early 2000s developing urban mobility transport. This is way before Uber and all these other companies were attempting to construct vertical takeoff and landing platforms for people in city settings. It was really incredible.

We developed the technology, but we were hampered by limitations in battery technology at the time. So, for example, what we built ran out of power after 30 seconds, which was aggravating because it was almost certainly far ahead of its time.

It was one of those situations where I was able to take away some important lessons about having amazing core technology, but if you don't have the supplies and other supporting technologies to back it up, you won't be able to ever bring it to market.

So I believe it was really being in that sort of scenario, trying to figure out why a tech business wouldn't be able to take the next step, and recognizing that there were opportunities in that core component space.

And that’s really where the story of Advanced Navigation begins?

Myself and the other co-founder of advanced negations Xavier (Xavier Orr), worked together in a drone technology startup in Western Australia back in the early 2000s. That company was building drone technology before companies like DJIs really took over the space. We were making drones for industrial applications like mining and fire departments and other use cases. 

Advanced Navigation Co-Founders Chris Shaw and Xavier Orr

The initial stumbling block we encountered was that drone navigation technology at the time was dominated by the military and aerospace industries, and the tech was large, bulky, and power-hungry. We saw this tremendous gap between the requirements of new applications we were working on and the traditional defence and aerosapce markets. As autonomy expands into a significant trend across the board, from drones to moving into the automobile sector and various others, there is now a significant market space for autonomous technology, especially in the navigation area where we have a lot of expertise because of our history.

So that's really where we decided to build Advanced Navigation. And it's quite fortuitous because Xavier did his thesis in artificial intelligence applications for inertial navigation. Which is using AI-based algorithms to extract data from multiple sources and senses and fuse that together to predict where something is and do it much more accurately than traditional methods. 

For context, the methodology used by most of our competitors today, that approach was developed in the 1960s, and they're still using it. So our approach is much more cutting edge. 

My background was in developing sensors, and specifically sensors using microelectronics. And so, we had the hardware knowledge in my experience and the software in Xavier's. So it just made a lot of sense for us to get together and start Advanced Navigation. That's really how the company evolved from that point. 

We were both still based in Perth at the time, but we decided   early on to establish ourselves in Sydney. And that was probably for a couple of reasons at the time; Our most significant opportunities were mainly as an exporter - we sell about 95% of our products overseas - and our primary market at the time was the US. So it just made sense to be closer to the US and be based in Sydney. Perth was still very much focused on mining-related industries, and the supply chain just wasn't there. We work with a lot of Australian manufacturers for machining, electronics assembly, and so on; they're primarily on the east coast. 

What relationship does Advanced Navigation maintain between R&D and entrepreneurship? How do you manage the split between science and research, and commercialisation?

I'm going to sit on the fence and say it’s 50/50. The company was built on a lot of fundamental research that went on for many years, starting at university, before we founded the company, it's been a passion project from start to finish.

We both had started other businesses before founding Advanced Navigation. And I believe we have that spirit of entrepreneurship. Personally, my parents ran their own businesses, and everyone in my family was entrepreneurial. And I suppose we really wanted to always do our own thing and believed we had some fantastic technology with research that we believed in.

Today we have very tight criteria for conducting research but we’re willing to try risky ideas. We've currently got around 5 wholly internal research project and additionally 5 separate research partnerships with external groups, including multiple programs with various Australian institutions.

All of those ideas, from our blue-sky concepts to things that we’re commercialising right now, revolve around addressing a market problem immediately or one we can anticipate will be there in the future. And I believe that's how we always evaluate those R&D projects: they must address a current or future market need. Otherwise, it's just researching for the sake of doing it. 

We have a strong strategy for where the company is going and how we're going to get there, and as we progress into the future, all of these research programs feed into that. Some of it's at a subsystem level, some of it's in new product areas, but everything has to fit into the business' strategy.

Do you have a product value that drives your development and your roadmap?

We're definitely very focused on solving real issues that we can see in the various industries where we sell our technology.

The really interesting thing for us is that we've been highly disruptive in the navigation industry, where many of our rivals have been operating for approximately 40-50 years and have done things in a similar manner for lengthy periods.

They have very narrow product lines for specific applications with limited adaptability. I believe that our products are often more like Swiss Army knives, in that they may be utilized across a variety of different contexts.

So, for example, we have one product that has been utilized in a submarine 6000 meters underwater doing environmental exploration. And the same technology was also employed in an unmanned system operating in space. It's the same hardware; there's slightly different software on it. And it shows our adaptability and practicality.

Because we produce a lot of extremely high-reliability applications, one of our core principles is a higher degree of dependability. A large portion of it has to do with being really practical in how we engineer our products. I think one of the things that made us thrive in this market is that we're very practical about our supply chain too.

Even now, when the world is experiencing a shortage in supply of electronics components it hasn’t yet impacted us, as we have a lot of forward planning with procurement and as a result we have the inventory available to us.

So yes, it's definitely a major goal for us to develop bleeding-edge, incredible technology. But we need to make sure that we can get it out there in our customers’ hands. So, it's always a priority that the engineering team are thinking about this and making sure that everything is thought through before parts are designed.

What technology excites you the most when it comes to your field and your verticals?

There's a lot of cool things we're involved in, for example in the space domain we’re working with customer on launch vehicles, orbital unmanned vehicles, satellites and we’re even working on projects with customers that will be landing things on the moon. They all have to do that safely and really accurately and we're providing the navigation solutions to that. 

Traditionally most of our customers are here on Earth but space is becoming a larger part of our business. It's one that stands out when you talk with our staff about our customers and how they’re using our products. Space is one of the most exciting areas for us, but just as important, underwater marine technology is a huge field for us.

We acquired another firm about four years ago, that was developing undersea acoustic navigation technology in Perth. And over the last few years, we've developed a rather extensive product portfolio to assist us to solve a variety of issues in the marine environment, and there are some really big things we have coming out over the next six months tin this area.

Has your strategic vision for Advanced Navigation changed since the company was founded?

We've evolved our strategic vision significantly since the original inception of the company. 

In the past, we were mainly an OEM supplier, selling off-the-shelf sensors for integration by our customers. Whilst that is still a large part of our business we are now greatly diversified and our strategy is focused around being a complete navigation and autonomy solution provider. 

We're not only selling sensors these days; we're also providing management platforms for autonomous vehicles, which is something that more and more consumers with whom we work today are requesting.

We just launched a new product this week, called Cloud Ground Control, a cloud platform that enables users to connect, monitor and control any drone from a web browser.

A common challenge we encountered was that our partners had numerous autonomous vehicles, but they were all controlled by individuals on the ground, and there was no effective solution to allow real time viewing and collection of the data from multiple drones at the same time. Additionally, CGC allows users to run vision processing apps on top of the video streams to increase the capabilities of the drones on the platform. The platform is already used by Australian company Little Ripper to manage their drone fleet over 1000 km of coastline.

That's where we're heading as a business: we're utilising our core technology to solve ever increasing problems using autonomy. I think it's reflective of the growth of the company, where we have built a multi-product technology stack, and also a core of amazing and bright people. We really see ourselves as the enablers of future autonomy solutions.

More about the company

Advanced Navigation

Advanced Navigation specialises in the development and manufacturing of navigation technologies and robotics. The company has a focus on generating products of the highest quality standard, both in terms of hardware and software. Advanced Navigation has specialised expertise across a broad range of fields including sensors, GNSS, inertial navigation, RF technologies, acoustics, robotics, AI and algorithms.

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