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5D Robotics, developer of military self-driving tech, makes a move on the civilian market

All vehicles dream of being robots.

In some increasingly likely but still-distant future, all vehicles will be wholly or partially autonomous. But there will be an awkward middle phase, a bridge period during which lots of dumb vehicles cludge around running into each other and creating chaos.

One alternative is to retrofit older vehicles with bolt-on self-driving tech.

5D Robotics originally developed its autonomous vehicle technology for military applications -- landmine detectors, in particular -- but the company has since realized that there's a big market in painlessly retrofitting dumb vehicles as smart, self-driving platforms.

It's the right approach at the right time, and 5D Robotics has made a string of big partnership announcements over the last couple months. United Rentals, the largest heavy equipment rental company in the world recently adopted 5D Robotics' technology to automate its fleet of existing vehicles. The automation is likely to improve efficiency in the yard and make worksites safer for the engineers.

The new 5D modules allow engineers to set up routes for vehicles to follow independently, without supervision. Engineers are able to pull up Google Maps and simply draw a route. Vehicles can also be set up to follow each other, or follow a person fitted with a sensor.

It all works via ultra-wide band technology, which is more reliable than GPS or radar alone. Vehicles equipped with UWB are more reliable indoors and in inclement weather than those that rely on GPS.

In early April 5D Robotics announced a collaboration with WHILL, a personal mobility company.

The new alliance will help accelerate WHILL's development of autonomous personal mobility technology for its flagship device, Model A.

WHILL Personal Mobility Device

WHILL Model A

5D Robotics fitted the Model A with its proprietary software behaviors, which will allow the device to autonomously navigate smart cities, hospitals, airports, campuses, resorts, and the hospitality industry. (You'll never have to walk to the buffet again.)

Just a couple days ago, 5D Robotics announced its acquisition of Aerial MOB, which provides aerial cinematography to major motion picture studios and film and television production houses and was the first company in the US to achieve FAA approval for use of drones in film production.

5D's new aerial division will provide autonomous 3D mapping, photogrammetry, thermal, and multi-spectral imagery data to sectors like oil and gas, utilities, and telecom. More proof that drones-as-a-service is blowing up.

And further proof that while self-driving cars may still be years away, autonomous vehicles are a reality today.

Next up in the story hopper: A primer on making my kid's stroller self-driving and my dog's leash self-walking.