ETH Zurich Spin-off Working on High Precision Navigation for Driverless Cars and Drones

Fixposition, an ETH Zurich spinoff that specializes in real-time navigation systems for self-driving vehicles, robots or industrial drones, has achieved an unparalleled degree of navigation precision. The company currently uses a combination of satellite-based positioning systems such as GPS with computer vision technologies to offer services.

Founded in August 2017, the start-up Fixposition produces high-precision navigation systems that can be fitted into autonomous devices such as drones, robots or driverless vehicles. The technology, which basically looks like a tiny component, not much bigger than a matchbox, enables the company to pinpoint the position of a device fitted with their system with centimeter accuracy. The revolutionary aspect is that localization is even possible in obstructed environments with a weak GPS signal, such as among high-rise buildings in cities, in forests or even underground.

The company was recently chosen as one of ten companies making up the Swiss national start-up team and took part in a trip to China organised by Venturelab, a funding body that supports young entrepreneurs. Company founders, Lukas Meier and Zhenzhong Su completed a strenuous two-week tour of China in September visiting Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and the recent World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin. And they believe it was helpful for them, making initial contacts with investors.

To make the system work, Su and Meier combine the advantages of cutting-edge satellite navigation with advanced computer vision technology. Or to put it another way: even with limited signal reception, the car, drone or robot can still operate by visually scanning the environment and checking it for recognizable details.

To survive as a start-up, the company founders have decided to concentrate on drones for the time being. Drones are no longer marketed purely as toys, but are increasingly being used for industrial applications. Su and Meier estimate the value of the global market for commercially used drones that Fixposition wants to break into at around three billion Swiss francs. Drones are currently being used in industry for tasks such as autonomous inspection or monitoring of installations, delivering goods or spraying pesticides on crops.

In China, drones are also being used in a way that is still fairly unheard of in the west: light shows in place of traditional fireworks. China is thus, a crucial market for Fixposition because so many companies are located there that needs drones with high-precision navigation systems: the world’s biggest drone manufacturers are based there as well. The company has already signed a partnership agreement with one of them.

Thanks to its Chinese activities and the acquisition of various other customers, Fixposition has managed to generate revenues in its first year of trading. But the company has yet to break even and therefore still needs the support of external investors. The start-up has received initial funding from ETH Zurich’s Pioneer Fellowship and from the ESA-BIC Incubation Program sponsored by the European Space Agency.

The young entrepreneurs are currently in the process of concluding their first deals for a million of funding from local investors. They want to use this injection of capital to expand their workforce from 5 to a dozen. They not only need to recruit software engineers, but also people working in marketing, sales, business development and acquisition. On top of that, they plan to open an office in China in the next few months.

It was actually a stroke of luck that Su and Meier linked up: they were originally following quite separate paths. While Su was studying at ETH for his doctorate on satellite navigation under Professors Alain Geiger and Markus Rothacher, Meier was writing a thesis on visual navigation for drones as part of his Master’s course at ETH. Just like the other team members Tonio Gsell and Lorenz Meier, they dreamed of founding their own start-up and received a Pioneer Fellowship from ETH to pursue their dream.

During this time, they got to know each other and realized that they shared a common goal: creating a high-precision and reliable navigation system for professional users. Looking back, Meier and Su say that apart from the incredible support from their mentors, one of the biggest benefits of the Pioneer Fellowship was that their paths crossed.