First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Bibhrajit Halder: We’re all facing a different world, and, personally, I feel very fortunate that both my family and everyone at SafeAI is safe and doing well.
While not being able to travel and visit customers does limit the pace of operations, we see a great sense of urgency in the construction and mining ecosystem for integrating digitalization and autonomous technology.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SafeAI.
Bibhrajit Halder: I have an extensive background in mechanical engineering and have been in the autonomy space for 17 years. I’m a former DARPA member and have led autonomy teams at Apple, Ford, and CAT. In the past five years, I started to realize there was a better market opportunity for autonomous technology in the heavy equipment industry.
And then, I came to a crossroads in 2017—either stay with Apple to support in creating an amazing product or take a risk and go out on my own to explore a different market opportunity. Ultimately, I decided to bundle all of the expertise that I had gained during my tenure and build an autonomous heavy equipment ecosystem—SafeAI.
I experienced the early development of autonomous technology in mining and construction equipment and then developed next-generation autonomous technology at places like Ford and Apple. It was a natural progression to connect the dots: AI-based autonomous solutions (what we call Autonomy 2.0) will greatly help mining and construction. We saw how retrofitted autonomous equipment will massively impact safety, usability, and productivity for mining and construction use cases.
How does SafeAI innovate?
Bibhrajit Halder: SafeAI aims to digitize heavy industries like mining and construction with best-in-class industrial AI. Many autonomous companies get tied up trying to build autonomous vehicles from the ground up; we’ve taken a different approach. We’re coming at innovation from a unique perspective by retrofitting existing fleets of construction and mining vehicles that are worth millions with autonomous software systems. We are in the business of creating safer, more connected, and seamless sites. We’re partnering with a range of companies to build an ecosystem around autonomy.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Bibhrajit Halder: This pandemic caught everyone off-guard—and our business was no exception. Navigating these uncertain times has been challenging. What’s more, the impact is being felt on construction and mining sites, too, which is exactly why these industries need autonomy.
In some ways, the pandemic has increased the need for a solution like SafeAI. Our target industries were already ripe for innovation pre-pandemic due to hurting margins, risky working conditions, and labor shortages. COVID-19 has only accelerated these bottlenecks. Now more than ever, these industries can benefit from the use of autonomous technology to make things more efficient, fill in the gaps left by worker restrictions, and operate sites 24/7 to make up for COVID-related delays.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Bibhrajit Halder: We are a little over three years in the making—and we’re constantly learning. We’re learning to listen to our customers and really understand their needs. During this bizarre time, we’re even more committed to our mission to bring the heavy equipment industry into the digital age. While the timeline for our goals and the pace at which our company moves has sped up over the past few months, we were fortunate enough that we didn’t have to make any difficult choices. The big lesson we had to learn was that you need to be nimble and resilient during uncertain times.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and SafeAI in the future?
Bibhrajit Halder: The startup life is fun, but it comes with long hours and countless deadlines. During the past eight months, COVID has added a completely different level of stress. We strongly encourage all our team members to take time off, relax, talk to each other, and find ways to stay connected.
It sounds simple, but the SafeAI team works incredibly hard to stay focused on concrete goals. We try not to get too caught up in things that we can’t control and instead focus on specific tasks that we can control.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Bibhrajit Halder: We believe that it is unrealistic for one company alone to bring the heavy industry into the digital age, at scale. The construction industry is worth billions of dollars alone, and the mining industry is even more—and that’s just in the U.S.
We know that many players can help usher in the age of autonomous vehicles. At SafeAI, we’re building an ecosystem that plays on the strengths of a range of companies, from lidar to tires. We’ll stay in the game because we’re building the framework to unite the disparate companies and functions in this industry.
Your final thoughts?
Bibhrajit Halder: There has been a lot of hype around autonomy, especially on our roads, but there are exciting, impactful opportunities today for less obvious applications of this technology in industries like construction and mining. We have some exciting advancements coming down the pipeline, and we’re optimistic about the future—for both our company and our industry, as well as society at large.