How a journey from Korea to southwest Ohio helped this startup find its niche
When most people think of automation, they think of plans for driverless cars and AI-driven ride-sharing programs. But while those innovations are still likely years away from implementation, automated vehicles are already beginning to impact a variety of industries that don’t involve vehicles on public roads. ThorDrive, based in Cincinnati, is at the forefront of that technology, creating autonomous tech for airports and beyond. The team took a roundabout path to its current Cincinnati headquarters, where their work now focuses on the Cincinnati/Northern International Airport.
“ThorDrive was incorporated in 2016 in the artificial robotics lab at the Seoul National University in Korea, and started as a robo taxi program in downtown Seoul,” said VP of Business Development Edward Shelton. “In 2018, we expanded to the United States and settled in Silicon Valley, but decided to pivot more towards industrial uses of autonomy. We were introduced to the innovation team at the Cincinnati Airport, where we’ve kicked off a project developing and adapting our software from the urban environment to the plane-side environment. Our plan is to have our autonomous baggage and cargo tractor available for sale by Q4 of this year.”
Moving from Silicon Valley to Ohio wasn’t part of ThorDrive’s original plans, but the airport became the company’s introduction to Ohio’s innovative nature. While other cities and airports were slow to adopt new technology and less interested in forward-looking methods, ThorDrive found a partner in Cincinnati that would allow them to grow, learn and improve while they did the same for the airport.
“Cincinnati’s innovation team is very aggressive, in a great way, about adopting the technologies that will help them identify the airport of tomorrow,” said Shelton. “Autonomy is one of their big priorities and their future vision is having passengers, crew, tenants and employees shuttled around the campus in autonomous shuttles. The Cincinnati Airport is growing significantly with DHL and the new Amazon hub that’s going in. They started with autonomous floor scrubbers inside the terminal and the next step is your baggage being taken away autonomously. They had done their homework and really knew what they were looking for and saw what we can achieve with our autonomous vehicles.”
ThorDrive’s tech is still in development, but their progress has Shelton excited and energized about what they’ll be offering in the near future. Their partnership in Cincinnati has allowed them to gather crucial data that can be challenging to collect. Shelton said they’re focused on safety and efficiency, and see a massive potential for growth. And after finding their niche in public partnerships and within private spaces and operations, ThorDrive sees themselves as an industry leader that can be adaptive to different industries. And while autonomous vehicles on public roads are potentially years away, ThorDrive’s tech is much more near-term.
“I can tell you with a very high level of confidence that within six months, there will be autonomous equipment somewhere working in the industrial market, but I cannot tell you that there will be an autonomous vehicle running on the roads publicly without a safety driver,” Shelton said. “That’s really where just the private companies or corporations or places like the airport have control over their environments. Our technology is platform- and powertrain-agnostic, so we can essentially take almost anything, retrofit it with our technology, and now it’s autonomous.”
Shelton said ThorDrive plans on selling its first five autonomous units by the end of 2021, and wants to build a self-contained facility in the Cincinnati area next year. With their own building up and running, he said the company is forecasting “a very aggressive growth curve,” with plans for a lot of hiring from the region. At the same time, ThorDrive is working to attract their first major round of investment that could help take them to the next level.
“With our team and our technology, we really have the chance to grow something from the startup phase and have a very big opportunity,” he said. “Government-sponsored enterprise is about a $10 billion global market, but we want to address other markets as well. Industrial use is an easy adaptation from where we are, and that’s a $100 billion market. It’s a very exciting opportunity with a very new technology in the grand scheme of things, but it’s also matured to a point where it’s not, ‘Autonomy is really cool,’ it’s a tool for business and a tool for safety.”