(Updates with quote from Applied Intuition in the eighth paragraph. A previous version corrected the description of Kodiak’s product in headline.)
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Self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics Inc. landed a near $50 million contract to help automate Army ground vehicles used in difficult terrain.
Kodiak announced the contract with a $49.9 million ceiling Tuesday. It showcases the Defense Department’s continued investment in making military operations more autonomous. The Army’s efforts are led by the Robotic Combat Vehicle program.
The company will use its self-driving software applications to develop and deploy capabilities for driverless Army vehicles with a focus on complex and GPS-challenged areas.
Kodiak has invested in a system that operates without map applications—making it a good fit with the Army’s needs, Kodiak founder and CEO Don Burnette said in an interview.
“Our trucks perceive the environment in real time, just like a human does,” he said. “That’s just what the government wants, something that can navigate unstructured environments.”
Kodiak differs from other driverless companies in that it doesn’t start with map applications that it then tailors with its own technology. Those app-dependent systems struggle to operate in signal-challenged environments or if the mapping application breaks down.
The contract agreement began in October and runs 24 months. The award came through the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit, which is focused on getting cutting-edge tech into use by the DOD.
The announcement also named Applied Intuition Inc. as an awardee. “We look forward to helping the RCV program and the DOD quickly and safely scale production of autonomous systems,” said Colin Carroll, head of government at Applied Intuition, in a November press release.
Kodiak will spend the first year adapting its existing software to Army applications and the second adding its system to off-road vehicles in complex environments.
Like many in the driverless innovation industry, Burnette said his team is motivated to make roads safer for motorists—a goal that makes it attractive to government users as well.
“Most of us got into the autonomy space for the safety aspects. We want to use this tech to save lives,” he said. “There are 40,000 deaths per year on US roads. Once we started down that path, it became clear this tech had a lot more broad applications, one of which being utility in US military situation, where we could save lives and keep our men and women in the armed forces out of harms way.”
The Driver(less) Seat
Kodiak has picked up government work in the past, including small business set-aside contracts, but this is its biggest unclassified contract to date.
Much of Kodiak’s work is still with commercial logistics firms and other companies with goods to move, such as Ikea.
Making the jump into government contracting can be intimidating for startups. Burnette said one of their investors, Harpoon Ventures, helped them navigate it. The company has since added staff with experience in federal procurement.
Burnette has been in the autonomous industry for years, founding a self-driving tech startup that was later acquired by Uber, which was working on robo-taxi technology. Those plans didn’t pan out, and Uber sold its autonomous vehicle division two years ago, though it rekindled those plans this year.
By then, Burnette had left the Uber and founded Kodiak Robotics with the idea that autonomous long-haul trucking is ripe for progress in autonomous innovation and deployment.
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