Aurora, the self-driving car startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, is in an acquiring mood. The company, founded in early 2017 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, announced Thursday that it acquired lidar company Blackmore.
The Blackmore purchase follows another smaller, and previously unknown, acquisition of 7D Labs that occurred earlier this year, TechCrunch has learned. 7D, founded by former software engineer from Pixar animation Magnus Wrenninge, is a simulation startup that makes photorealistic synthetic data sets for street scenes. Aurora confirmed the acquisition.
Aurora’s larger Blackmore acquisition comes on the heels of its $530 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital and “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Aurora did not disclose the terms of the deal.
Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance. It’s considered by many in the emerging automated driving industry — with the exception of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a handful of others — as a critical and necessary sensor for self-driving vehicles.
Blackmore, which has 70 employees, might not be a household name. And its base of operations in Bozeman, Mont. makes it a seeming oddball amongst the Silicon Valley scene.
But in the world of autonomous vehicles (and in military circles), Blackmore is well-known and has been considered an acquisition target for some time. Two funding rounds in 2016 and 2018 that brought in backers like BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures raised Blackmore’s profile. (The company has raised $21.5 million). Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, was looking at the company last year, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
But it’s the company’s tech, which has been under development for nearly a decade, that got Aurora CEO Chris Urmson’s attention.
Blackmore CEO Randy Reibel noted in a recent interview a highlight was getting a chance to see the look on Urmson’s face when he first saw the lidar in action.
Not all lidar is the same, both Urmson and Reibel noted. The vast majority of the 70-odd companies that exist in the industry today are developing and trying to sell AM lidar sensors, which send out pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then track how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.
Blackmore is one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low-power and continuous wave, a bit like keeping a flashlight on, the company’s CTO and co-founder Stephen Crouch explained. The upshot is FMCW lidar can measure distance with a higher dynamic range and instant velocity, meaning it can gauge the speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them. It’s also “immune” to interference from sun or other other sensors, Crouch added.
The big win, Urmson and Reibel echoed, is that it is optimized with the perception stack. In other words, this lidar is technically compatible in a way that will improve perception of Aurora’s “driver.”
The acquisition of Blackmore is just one example in the past two years of lidar startups either announcing large equity and debt rounds or being snapped up by companies developing autonomous vehicle technology. In 2017, Cruise acquired Strobe and Argo AI bought Princeton Lightwave.
That kind of consolidation will likely continue, Reibel predicted, in part because it’s challenging for lidar companies to “go it alone.” AV companies are particularly protective of their tech and opening the door to an outside lidar company takes convincing.
Despite the acquisition, Urmson reiterated, as he has in the past, that Aurora is not interested in manufacturing hardware, whether it’s cars or lidars. The company will work with automotive Tier 1 suppliers and other partners as it scales.
For now, Aurora is focused on integrating Blackmore’s lidar into its self-driving stack and isn’t necessarily planning to sell lidar sensors as a standalone product. But, Urmson added, “We’re open-minded about the future.”