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Overwatch Imaging takes the wide view

  • Adam Bluestein
5/9/2022

Hood River aerial imaging company raises $11 million for its AI in the air.

While still better known for windsurfing and waterfall hikes, the Columbia River Gorge has a growing reputation as an unlikely hub for airborne imaging and drone companies. Among the businesses eyeing further growth here is Hood River, Oregon-based Overwatch Imaging, which last month announced it had raised $11 million in Series A funding round led by defense- and security-focused investors Squadra Ventures and Shield Capital.

Founded in 2016, Overwatch designs and manufactures automated aerial imaging systems that are used in defense, search and rescue, maritime patrol, wildfire mapping and natural disaster response.

Overwatch CEO Greg Davis and CTO Nick Anderson are both veterans of Insitu, the Boeing-owned maker of (mostly) military drones, across the Columbia River in Bingen, Washington, that helped to establish this area as a cluster of innovation for unmanned aviation systems. (And also paid $25 million earlier this year to settle a whistleblower claim that it used recycled parts on military gear). Other neighbors included Hood River-based Orbital UAV, a maker of drone engine systems, and Trillium Engineering, which makes drone camera systems. Aerovel, a venture-backed startup building long-range robotic aircraft, is based in Bingen.

Overwatch specializes in autonomous aerial detection for large-scale, time-sensitive search and surveillance missions. The company’s systems eliminate the “soda straw” effect common to traditional video “gimbal,” which allow high-resolution viewing of small sections at a time of a given area — like looking through a straw. That’s frustrating when you have a swath of ocean to scan for a missing boat. Instead, Overwatch’s system runs in automated scanning mode, using onboard AI to analyze the full-resolution imagery in real time. This allows imagery to be collected in a way that is optimized for computer processing rather than for human viewing, with higher resolution and extra spectral bands that are hard for people to visually process, increasing the size of an area that can be meaningfully analyzed and the speed at which it can be analyzed. And by transmitting only the data that’s needed or desired on the ground, Overwatch’s “autonomous aerial detection” systems provide in-flight reporting on points of interest, allowing real-time response by a remote operator, without requiring constant human monitoring.

Overwatch’s technology lets people do what they’re good at, analyzing data and planning a response, and lets machines do what they’re really good at — like looking for small things in huge bodies of water. Overwatch is the main provider of maritime search systems for the European Maritime Safety Agency’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System program, supporting search-and-rescue efforts at sea. It is also the leading provider of aerial wildland fire map data to the U.S. Forest Service.

Wildfires burned about 7.13 million acres across in the U.S. in 2021, and drones are increasingly being deployed to monitor and fight them. Using infrared sensors, Overwatch’s systems can relay precise temperatures for every pixel across a 327,000-pixel array, allowing a new kind of precision firefighting that is revolutionizing practices in the field. The company’s systems have also helped organizations like NOAA to support flood forecasting and emergency response, and to monitor poaching of endangered wildlife.

Currently employing 25 people, Overwatch says it plans to hire 15 to 20 more across engineering and business development, aiming to meet “high demand” in both civil and “special mission” applications and to move into new market segments. Judging by the company’s new and old investors — which also include defense contractors L3Harris Technologies and Tenax Aerospace — national security and defense are sure to be a major focus.