Vancouver-founded AI drone firm gets a lift with US$8m investment

The fortunes of a Vancouver-founded tech firm specializing in artificial intelligence for drones look to be sky-bound after announcing Thursday (January 18) it's raised US$8 million in a seed-funding round.

Iris Automation is developing AI-powered anti-collision technology for unmanned aerial vehicles to help UAVs fly autonomously by predicting and avoiding potential mid-air crashes with birds, planes or helicopters.

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CEO Alex Harmsen said a significant amount of the capital raised will go towards testing the technology and proving that the AI capabilities are more effective than human drone pilots.

“We’re in a very similar position to a lot of self-driving car companies where the tech is built, these cars are capable of actually being on the street, avoiding traffic and working autonomously,” he told BIV.

“But the public hasn’t quite been convinced that it’s there. And the regulators also haven’t been quite convinced.”

He said he hopes further testing will get more people on board.

The Series A funding round was led by Bessemer Venture Partners, with participation from Bee Partners.

David Cowan, a partner at Bessemer, will join Iris’ board as part of the deal.

Iris’ technology uses a combination of sophisticated embedded computing platforms and high-resolution, vision-based sensors to detect objects in the sky. The total weight of the system comes in at less than 300 grams.

While Iris was founded in Vancouver, it moved its headquarters to San Francisco 15 months ago.

Harmsen said the relocation was to take advantage of more access to capital and talent.

But Iris has two customers in Vancouver and Harmsen said B.C.’s natural resources industry lends itself to even more opportunities for UAVs.

“Our core markets are really drone companies and applications that benefit from non-lateral infrastructure inspection, whether that’s pipelines or powerlines or being able to look at … coastal areas,” he said.

“All of these sectors benefit tremendously from these drones being able to fly completely autonomously hundreds of kilometres at a time.”

Iris’ headcount sits at 10 employees and Harmsen said he plans to hire 14 more this year.

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