A camera is never just a camera anymore. For FLIR — the company whose bread and butter may be lenses and images but whose product is best thought of as an intelligence add-on more than any pedestrian photography — was never just about the camera.
FLIR’s cameras and sensors have been incorporated into vehicles for decades, a platform on platforms. But in the past two years, FLIR has moved to acquire robotics companies of its own. A new deal, announced Feb. 11, 2019, is set to have FLIR acquire Endeavor Robotics.
In November 2016, FLIR acquired Prox Dynamics, maker of the sparrow-sized Black Hornet micro-drone. It was FLIR’s first foray into its own unmanned vehicles. In January 2019, FLIR acquired drone-maker Aeryon Labs, which produces vehicles that weigh less than 20 pounds for a number of militaries across the globe.
“Now with Endeavor, we’ve started down that path of executing our inorganic phase of our growth strategy for unmanned,” said David Ray, president of the Government and Defense Business Unit at FLIR. “What that does is it allows us to have a platform to move the customer’s vision forward for this whole notion of manned-unmanned teaming. It’s driving an open architecture, an environment where you can have both manned vehicles and unmanned really cooperating and delivering missions like never before.”
Endeavor Robotics is the largest get by FLIR of the lot. FLIR is set to buy Endeavor for $385 million — almost twice as much as FLIR paid for Aeryon Labs, and nearly three times as much as it spent on Prox Dynamics.
With Endeavor Robotics comes a whole host of tracked unmanned ground vehicles, including the infantry-deployable (and -tossable) FirstLook, and the larger and heavier PackBot and Kobra. These robots can incorporate a variety of sensors from FLIR, for everything from video and infrared to chemical detection. Being in-house means FLIR can experiment and explore more fusion of its various platforms.
“With our Black Hornet we can have a reconnaissance system that is connected to a vehicle,” Ray said, “a tank or whatever it may be, where you could actually launch Black Hornet aircraft from another vehicle. As we enhance our sensors across both, we’re able to bring that power to bear in terms of layered surveillance.”
While FLIR is still relatively new to robotics, it’s used to working across sectors. FLIR sensors have been used by the military, government, law enforcement and in the security space, and have had to stay competitive with commercial companies. Lessons learned from an application in nuclear reactor security might be applicable to a sensor on an explosive ordnance disposal robot. Those updates and lessons have stayed fixed to the specific sensor. With the new robotics companies acquired by FLIR, it can adapt its vehicles and sensors in a more holistic way.
“Our latest Black Hornet III is able to operate in GPS-denied environments,” Ray said. “And so the beauty of Endeavor being part FLIR is we can go look at how we take an investment and enhancements we’ve made and see what it takes to go transfer that into a vehicle. The ultimate goal is being able to build world-class R&D and generate world-class capability, and then be able to expand that across multiple platforms.”
FLIR’s past, present and future remain very much about the core business of providing sensors for others to incorporate. Also in that future we can anticipate FLIR adapting and designing its own vehicles around its sensors. That means looking at the way the data collected by those sensors can be turned into everything from useful navigational information for an autonomous system on the vehicle, to vital information relayed by tablet to soldiers commanding the robot nearby.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.