May 26, 2024


Knut Sandven, CEO

Why we founded Sonair

Humanity is at a crossroads. For the first time, we can see a realistic outline of a future where humans will live and work alongside machines that operate autonomously. We are starting to understand specifically how machines will be capable of acting on their own.

The good news is that robots will do the repetitive and unsafe work we don’t want to do. The bad news is that we still haven’t worked out how we’ll live and work safely alongside each other.

That’s why we’re building Sonair. The Sonair 3D ultrasonic sensor is designed to make robots safe, affordable, and efficient.

When everything aligns

Maybe it is no coincidence that Sonair was founded where humans have always sought perspective: on the top of a mountain.

In September 2022, seven of us stood atop a mountain in Florø, on Norway’s rugged northwestern coast.

People on a mountain top

It was one of those perfect moments when everything aligned: the right people, eager to work together again; groundbreaking technological advances; and a significant emerging megatrend that sparked creativity and fostered new ideas.

That global megatrend is called machine autonomy. It’s the idea that machines or a system can perform tasks and make decisions without human intervention. Not just operate on their own by completing a series of pre-programmed tasks but perform tasks independently, based on their own and the system’s continuous learning.  

This development raises challenging questions about the balance between control and independence, and how machines might eventually handle responsibilities that require nuanced judgments.

This is where we see Sonair playing a role. To enable true autonomy, machines need to truly see and understand its surroundings. This is a prerequisite for humans to remain safe when robots and other machines increasingly become part of our lives.

Early seeds

Rarely does something emerge from nothing. In early 2000, I realized I needed to pivot from management consulting back to technology. I joined SINTEF, a leading Norwegian research institute, in their Department of Micro and Nanotechnology, where they develop MEMS—micro-electromechanical systems. This technology  has been the foundation for advancements in a vast array of electronic hardware over the past few decades.

At SINTEF, I encountered numerous projects with tremendous commercial potential.

After only a few years, I started my first company called GasSecure, based on MEMS components. We created a completely wireless hydrocarbon detector to be used in the alarm safety system for the oil and gas industry. The reliability and safety certification requirements were designed to automatically shut down operations. The additional challenge was to make it incredibly energy-efficient so that it could operate wirelessly. To achieve this, we developed a new detection principle. This involved combining ultrasound with an optical sensor for light and sound.

During this time, I was introduced to Frode Tyholdt.

Frode Tyholdt

Frode had been working since his doctoral studies in the early 2000s to create a MEMS version of an ultrasound transmitter. We planned to use it in the GasSecure detector, but we considered the technology too immature at that time and ended up with using a bulky car parking sensor.  GasSecure became a robust company, creating products sold globally, until it was acquired by the German company Dräger, the market leader in gas detection.

MEMS on the rise

In 2022, SINTEF reintroduced me to the ultrasound technology developed by Frode. It had advanced significantly, demonstrated by a demo where transducers mounted around a TV screen could track a moving pen, interpreting its motions.

This innovation could transform any surface into a digital writing pad, by using ultrasound sensors.

Together with SINTEF, I decided to look at the potential for commercializing the technology. Coincidentally, at the same time, Dräger decided to move the GasSecure development team from Oslo to Lübeck in Germany.

Several employees from GasSecure did not want to move to Germany. So, in agreement with Dräger, it was now possible to recruit these unique engineers and technologists I had previously worked with at GasSecure.

The team included Britta Fismen (engineering, production, quality), Dag Wang (physics and technology genius), and Espen Albrektsen (safety-certifiable software architecture) from the GasSecure team. They were joined by Ole-Marius Hoel Rindal (medical ultrasound from SINTEF), Wilfred Booij (the Norwegian/Dutch ultrasound guru with more than 100 patents in the field), and Frode Tyholdt.

People working together

Together, we formed the Sonair founding team.

This team was experienced, well-integrated, and high performing. The combination of a unique technology and an exceptional technical team was what made me decide to start a new company to commercialize Frode Tyholdt's ultrasound technology.

We started exploring two different application areas for our technology in parallel. One was a room sonar to track and analyze people’s movement in a building. The other was a next-generation proximity sensor for the automotive industry. The founding team has a track record in building highly reliable, safety-certified products for industrial settings.

This (unfair) advantage kept us focused on non-consumer products where reliability is favored over cost, but we still wanted to get quickly to market. That led us to industrial robotics, a market with many of the same requirements and safety criteria as automotive but with higher product cycle frequencies and easier environmental protection requirements.

Enter autonomous mobile robots

In the area of industrial warehouse robots and logistics we saw a rapidly growing niche where the value proposition with 3D object detection at lower cost and simplified robot design can have great value. A trend within this segment is the transition from AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles), where the warehouses are instrumented, to fully automatic AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots).

The AMR market is expected to overtake the AGV market, growing at an annual rate of 30%. The safety requirements for AMRs drive the need for better sensors. The cost of sensors is a friction point for AMR growth that Sonair will help to resolve.

By securing exclusive global rights to use of SINTEF's PMUT technology in air (PMUTs are MEMS-based piezolectronic ultrasonic transducers), we began moving towards commercialization. Our founding team financed the initial stages, later supported by seed investors with values aligned with Sonair. These investors are familiar faces from our previous ventures: SINTEF Venture, ProVenture, Stratel, and Startuplab.

We’re already working closely with robot manufacturers, component suppliers, system integrators, and software suppliers. One of them is Solwr, a company that develops innovative autonomous robots for logistics and retail.

2024 is pivotal for Sonair. With a team of 16, we're preparing our first evaluation kit for customer testing in various use cases.

I firmly believe that Sonair will become the core of the standard sensor package for autonomous machines and robots.

In not too long.

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