UC student’s start-up solves space management problem

Natalus, Inc. uses lidar sensors to help companies manage their space

If you have ever driven around a parking garage looking for a spot that is not there, you have encountered a space management problem.

Parking attendants drive around the garage, counting spaces and estimating the number of empty spots left. Garages use this information to determine when to close their gates in a process that is slow, inefficient and archaic.

The very fact that you can’t find a spot, however, is reflective of the inefficiency and inaccuracy – not to mention, frustration – of the system.

Space is undermanaged. Every day, companies lose money, time and miss out on growth opportunities due to poor space management plans. And it’s not just parking companies. Everything from warehouses to freight handlers deal with space problems –
according to a study by the Georgia Institute of Techonlogy, only 30 percent of US warehouses use their space efficiently. 

A new start-up company by a University of Cincinnati student may have the solution to these problems.

Natalus, Inc. is a software and hardware company that uses artificial intelligence and environmental sensors to image and analyze space, providing companies with real-time data. Companies use that data to manage their space, optimize their assets, which saves money and time.

heashots of Terry, Cevasco and Jordan

Natalus, Inc. team, from left to right: Matthew Terry, Founder, CEO; Vincent Cevasco, Co-Founder, CMO; and Ryan Jordan, Co-Founder, CTO. Photos/Provided.

“We make parking attendants’ jobs easier,” said Natalus CEO Matthew Terry (aerospace engineering ’20). “Instead of going to the lot every hour, our sensors will tell you exactly when a car has come.” 

Terry, along with UC students Ryan Jordan (information technology ’20) and Vinny Cevasco (business ’20), are the minds behind the one-year-old company. Together, they make an effective trio with an impressive range of skills that include hardware, software and data analytics, as well as marketing, costing and networking.

Terry talked about his startup at UC's new 1819 Innovation Hub, located about a mile from UC’s Uptown Campus. The Hub is a reflection of UC's strategic direction, Next Lives Here, and features an open-space collaboration environment. Natalus has its own space in the Hub’s venture labs, which are dedicated specifically to foster start-up companies.

“The whole premise of why I became the entrepreneur I am now was because of a problem with UC’s library,” Terry said.

We make parking attendants’ jobs easier. Instead of going to the lot every hour, our sensors will tell you exactly when a car has come.

Matthew Terry, CEO of Natalus, Inc.

Like many students, Terry used the library as a study space. Each time he arrived at the library for an evening of homework, however, he spent 15 to 20 minutes navigating the winding hallways and staircases looking for an open study room. 

“Everyone has this problem,” Terry said. “I thought, ‘I can pair together a Raspberry Pi and an IR sensor, put them in every study room and be done.’”

The sensors would let him know which rooms were occupied and which were open.

From there, Terry pitched this idea to the technology head of the library. He then met several advisors through a UC incubator called Bearcat Launchpad. Everyone kept telling him the same thing: think bigger.

“Thinking bigger about space management and the data visualization problem. That’s how we came across parking,” Terry said. “Parking is a big market, a lot bigger than room management, and after thinking through several different solutions, I came up with a lidar solution. That’s how Natalus came to fruition.”

The Dark Knight rises

natalus device

Natalus' device uses beams of light to create a continuous depth image of any indoor or outdoor environment. Photo/Provided.

Natalus is named after a genome of the bats species, and just as a bat uses echolocation to spot its prey and visualize a dark night’s landscape, Natalus devices uses lidar sensors to map out the space around it.

“We initially thought to drill holes in every single parking spot, but that’s just so inefficient,” Terry said.

Cameras wouldn’t work either because of the complex algorithms that have to be adjusted for each separate application. Then Terry and the team began researching sensors.

“We bought a one-dimensional lidar device and started playing with that and some virtual simulations,” he said. “I then taught myself how to analyze and create the artificial intelligence for that.”

Lidar (originally an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging) sensors create 3D maps of the environment by shooting out photons of light. The photons bounce off an object and return to the receiver. The device then computes the time of flight of each photon and places a point. What’s left resembles a black-and-white Seurat painting: an assortment of white dots, which, when put together, form a recognizable image.

One of the biggest challenges of building a device like this is ensuring it can capture the entire landscape.

“In a parking facility,” Terry said, “you need the full 360-degree horizontal and 180 degree vertical.”

Lidar is the same technology used by self-driving cars, but the cameras atop those autonomous vehicles don’t need to capture the same dataset as Natalus’ sensors. Driverless cars capture a 360-degree horizontal but only about a 31-degree vertical since, for driving purposes, you don’t need to map the sky.

Natalus’s sensors hang upside-down (another bat-like trait), however, so they need to have the ability to capture everything below them – the cars, the floor, the open spaces – to give a dataset that parking facilities owners and operators can use.

Natalus logo

Natalus, Inc. is a hardware/software company that helps companies manage their space effectively. Graphic/Provided.

But Natalus isn’t strictly a “next-generation parking company,” as it was originally branded. Shortly after the company launched, Terry received a call from UPS, a company dealing with space issues of its own. Without a system to identify the number of packages in each truck, UPS was losing millions of dollars a year, just in the process of loading and unloading its trucks.

Terry’s team realized that the same lidar technology that it used for parking could be applied to the shipping and handling industry. A lidar-based Natalus device in a delivery truck bed, for example, could provide a shipping company with real-time geospatial readings that could help it visualize, digitize and optimize its operations. Throw these same devices in a warehouse or shipping facility – like the $1.5 billion Amazon Prime hub being built in Northern Kentucky – and it’s a whole new ballgame. 

Flying forward

The future of Natalus looks bright. The company has already talked to more than 200 businesses – Terry recently returned from a trip to San Francision to meet with Procter and Gamble executives – and Natalus has several betas in operation, including one with one with Covington, Kentucky.

Financially, the company has received about $100,000 in funding from grants, accelerators and competitions. The code is written and the artificial intelligence and data analytics technology has been validated. With two devices set to go – one outdoor, one indoor – the company is poised to take off.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Natalus' technology is the way it affects everyday lives. On a drive across town, you can see its impacts: FedEx packing its trucks more efficiently, self-driving cars mitigating traffic congestion, drones flying by with packages in tow, coming to and from an Amazon facility getting the most out of its 3 million square feet.

And next time you pull into a parking garage, know that Natalus has found yet another application for lidar technology, making finding a spot that much easier.  

Featured image at top: A Natalus device hangs from the ceiling within a parking garage. Natalus devices use lidar technology and artificial intelligence to provide companies with real-time data, increasing the efficiency of space management practices. Photo/Provided. 

Next Lives Here

Reuters recently named the University of Cincinnati among the 100 most innovative institutions of higher learning in the world. Learn how UC is shaping the future through its innovative agenda and strategic direction, Next Lives Here

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