Sentient Vision Systems acquired by US defence tech giant Shield AI

Sentient Vision Systems acquired by US defence tech giant Shield AI

ViDAR is Sentient’s AI-enabled wide area motion imagery deployed for real-time maritime surveillance (Source: Sentient Vision Systems)

Shield AI, a defence technology company building an AI pilot capable of operating fighter jets, drones and quadcopters, has snapped up Melbourne-based Sentient Vision Systems for an undisclosed sum.

Founded in 2004 by Dr Paul Boxer, Sentient specialises in ViDAR (visual detection and ranging) – an optical radar technology that can detect very small objects, dramatically extending the coverage of aircraft in a broad range of missions including search and rescue, illegal fishing, counter-narcotics and maritime security.

The company also developed Kestrel Maritime, a software solution that automatically detects objects on the surface of the water with electro-optical (EO) or infrared (IR) full-motion video. To date, the system has been deployed more than 3,500 times and integrated into a range of manned and unmanned aircraft.

Clients on the company roster include the Australian Defence Force, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, United States Special Operations Command, United States Marine Corps, United States Coast Guard, United Kingdom Royal Navy, European Maritime Safety Agency, and more. 

The acquisition comes eight months after the companies partnered together to deliver a wide area motion imagery (WAMI) solution for the Department of Defense (DoD), Australian Defense Forces (ADF) and other international customers.

Together, the firms agreed to develop and integrate a ViDAR-enabled, wide-area-search capability onto Shield AI’s V-BAT unmanned aircraft, enabling its vertical take-off and landing drone (VTOL) to intelligently classify, track, and read-and-react to targets in dynamic missions.

Known as Hivemind, Shield AI’s AI pilot has already flown V-BAT, fighter jet F-16 and quadcopter Nova.

“What stood out to us about Shield AI is that they are the only company in the world with an operational AI pilot, and therefore have the technological expertise and maturity to really deliver on the AI technology workstream underlined in AUKUS Pillar 2,” said Sentient CEO Mark Palmer, who took over the company from the founder about six months ago. 

“The innovation breakthrough combining our computer vision AI-enabled ViDAR and Shield AI’s Hivemind will increase situational awareness, enabling quicker more effective decision making and help to save lives.”

Founded in 2015 by Brandon Tseng, Ryan Tseng, and Andrew Reiter, Shield AI is a venture-backed defense technology company building AI pilots that enable swarms of drones and aircraft to operate autonomously without GPS, communications, or a pilot. The company has offices and facilities in San Diego, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and Abu Dhabi.

Three months ago, the firm announced the expansion of its Series F funding round to hit US$500 million (AUD $759 million). Shield AI raised an additional US$100 million in equity, and US$200 million in debt from Hercules Capital was added to the initial US$200 million in funding secured in October 2023.

The initial Series F round valued Shield AI at $2.7 billion (AUD $4 billion).

“This acquisition unites Sentient’s ViDAR and our Hivemind AI pilot, creating the world’s most advanced AI-piloted ISR sensor package,” said Ryan Tseng, who is CEO and co-founder of Shield AI.

“Considering the imperative of covering vast maritime areas, especially in the Pacific, joining forces with Sentient was a strategic choice given their expertise in optical radar solutions.

“The integration of WAMI on V-BAT will revolutionise our offering, enabling Group 3-sized aircraft to perform tasks that previously required larger, costlier aircraft, significantly enhancing our customers’ operational capabilities.”

Shield AI has also introduced V-BAT Teams, a first-of-its-kind software product powered by Hivemind that enables teams of V-BATs to execute missions, autonomously reading and reacting to each other and the environment just as a team of humans would normally pilot them. 

“The combination of AI pilots, Sentient Observer, and teams of affordable drones like the MQ-35 VBAT will provide the same land and maritime domain awareness that today’s $40 million and $180 million Group 5 drones and crewed aircraft like the P-8 provide at a fraction of the price,” said Brandon Tseng, who is Shield AI's president and co-founder, in addition to being a former Navy SEAL.

“The DoD has asked for an all-seeing eye over tens of thousands of square miles, 24/7, without the need for GPS or communication links. For Shield AI, Sentient Observer is the final piece of that puzzle.

“The DoD can begin augmenting and replacing their legacy solutions for a distributed, low cost, low risk solution that doesn’t break the bank if an aircraft is shot down.”

The acquisition is pending regulatory approval and customary closing conditions.

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