Skip to main content

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Update your browser

We use cookies to make interactions with our websites and services easy and meaningful, to better understand how they are used and to tailor advertising. By using our website or clicking “ALLOW”, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy.

Success Stories

Client Spotlight: Alex D'Alton, CEO of Daltonomous

Daltonomous helps companies protect their critical autonomous assets from cyber and physical attacks. CEO Alex D'Alton shares how the startup is using artificial intelligence to protect, detect, and recover autonomous systems from electronic interference.

June 25, 2024

Hear a buzz in the air? It’s likely one of the over 337,000 drones in use across Canada. While many of these drones are recreational, nearly 30% are used by enterprises, law enforcement agencies, and the military to do everything from land resource surveys to providing real-time information to protect lives.

Like any technology, these autonomous vehicles use a combination of sensors and networks to complete their missions. But what happens when a bad actor attempts to disable or take control of one of these drones?

That’s the mission of Waterloo-based Daltonomous, one of the startups selected for the inaugural Aerospace Accelerator Program at the Accelerator Centre in collaboration with the Region of Waterloo and NAVBLUE.

An entrepreneurial journey takes flight

D’Alton’s path to engineering and entrepreneurship took an unusual route. While working on his Legal Studies degree at the University of Waterloo, he took an opportunity to lead an engineering team at the Sedra Student Design Centre.

“That’s when I got passionate about engineering and learning how to design and build vehicle systems. I knew right out of undergrad that I wanted to start my own business and build something exciting,” he says.

He put his skills to work doing research and development in autonomous vehicles, focusing on how they function in inclement weather. This was still in the early days of autonomous vehicles, and D’Alton decided to return to university for the Master of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology program. It was there that he met Prasanna Karthik, one of his co-founders.

“He's the cybersecurity professional. I understand the sensor side. We worked on a couple of different projects which led us to discover the numerous vulnerabilities in autonomous vehicles. For instance, look at the Waymo autonomous taxis in California. If you stand on the street with a t-shirt that has a stop sign on it, the car will stop because it likely thinks you are a construction worker holding a stop sign,” he says.

The autonomous vehicles category includes drones, cars, robotics, transport trucks, and aircraft. D’Alton says these are expensive and incredibly complex vehicles often operated in public spaces. The stop sign issue is only one example of how a bad actor could influence one of these vehicles. D’Alton and Karthik started to investigate other potential vulnerabilities.

“We started digging and found someone else doing similar research at the University of British Columbia, Pritam Dash. He is a wizard in the defence for autonomous systems space, and we were able to bring him on the team as a third co-founder. From there, we started to develop and test the resiliency of autonomous systems and their sensor suite to learn more,” D’Alton says.

Protecting autonomous vehicles from attack

Daltonomous provides a plug-in system for virtually any autonomous vehicle. The system protects the integrity of the data captured by the vehicle’s sensors. It is designed to detect issues or anomalies with sensors or data, protect the vehicle’s sensors from nefarious data, and recover systems so the vehicle can complete its mission.

“We call this detect, protect, and recover. That holistic solution is not seen in the industry right now, and the people we've been speaking to think it's unique, too,” D’Alton says.

Cameras are only one sensor type on an autonomous vehicle. D’Alton says sensors that use invisible electromagnetic spectrums present significant challenges. GPS sensors can be jammed or spoofed, sending a drone or autonomous car off course and risking people’s lives or property.

“These sensors are sophisticated. An attack is difficult to detect and it's extremely difficult to defend against. This invisible enemy is not something top of mind unless you're in the industry—and those in the industry know how critical and challenging, this problem is to solve.”

Daltonomous focuses on four verticals: small robotics, autonomous vehicles, the defence industry, and commercial aviation. D’Alton says the startup’s introduction to commercial aviation came from the Aerospace Accelerator Program at the Accelerator Centre. Commercial aviation heavily relies on the safety and quality of the products put into planes, especially critical navigation systems.

D’Alton highlighted that there are no software-only systems on the market to mitigate attacks like GPS jamming or spoofing. When a jamming attack happens, some of the aircraft’s navigation temporarily goes offline. Airplanes have redundant navigation systems to allow safe flights over contested areas like the Black Sea or the Arctic. But D’Alton says the issue is economic.

“Pilots need to be trained for these scenarios. There are costs to rerouting these flights. Last but most importantly, the aircraft are put through intensive maintenance to test and reset their systems after an incident. It costs a lot to keep a plane grounded. A system like ours can help alleviate at least some, if not all, of those issues.”

Making a connection with the Accelerator Centre

D’Alton shared that the Aerospace Accelerator Program helped make connections that exposed them to markets they hadn’t initially considered, like commercial aviation and defense.

“We’re fortunate to be in the program, especially with the NAVBLUE connection because of their insights into the industry. They have a vast collective experience in the aviation sector and the conversations we have together help us quickly identify opportunities for our solution. There's been a lot of progress, and it's just been a super experience learning from NAVBLUE so far.”

It can be challenging to break into the defense industry. D’Alton affirmed that the Accelerator Centre's reputation has helped them start promising conversations with defense partners.

“These are critical systems that the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces or other international Armed Forces rely on day to day. There's a lot of trust involved, and the first step is getting in the door. The AC mentors have provided us with great connections, which has started those conversations in the defense industry. Having someone to make an intro is critical, and the AC mentors are always there to support us by reaching into their networks.”

What’s next for Daltonomous?

The startup is taking advantage of the Accelerator Centre’s mentors and services as it heads full-steam into sales mode. D’Alton confirms they are product-ready and in talks with potential customers for testing. Aerospace and defense sales cycles are considerably longer than commercial cycles, but he adds that the feedback has been immensely positive.

“We're really looking to establish ourselves in 2024 as a strong new entrant to the aerospace and defense industry in Canada. We’re standing on the shoulders of all the tech companies in Waterloo in this industry that are looking to expand as well. We’re excited to be part of a movement of homegrown tech, building things by Canadians for Canadians.”