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Armada Brings AI To Remote Places, Using SpaceX Starlink Satellites

Armada founders Dan Wright and Jon Runyan are looking to bring compute to remote places: “Do that, and there’s a lot you can do with AI.”

Armada

Led by former DataRobot CEO Dan Wright, one-year-old Armada is leveraging a “close collaboration” with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to offer edge computing to oil rigs, mines and distant battlefields. It’s raised $55 million at a valuation approaching $250 million.


On oil rigs and at remote mines — not to mention advanced military bases, fire prevention outposts or even at elite surfing competitions — one basic problem slows the easy use of exciting new artificial intelligence models: data. By remote sensor, camera and drone, they’re generating it by the terabyte. Then it usually just sits there.

“Nothing is being done with this data, and that just seemed crazy to me,” Dan Wright, CEO of startup Armada told Forbes. “Once I got into the problem of bridging that digital divide, I couldn’t help it; I just couldn’t stop.”

Armada has spent the past year building what it believes is the solution: a full-stack technology platform that brings AI grade computing capabilities to industrial devices that might benefit from them. A big piece of that: building on top of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. While other startups have leveraged SpaceX in their strategies for mining or manufacturing in space, Armada believes it’s the first to be built on top of Starlink, SpaceX’s network of internet-provider satellites. Its software suite, Commander, includes tools for managing and connecting Starlinks and other internet assets to ensure connectivity in remote areas.

Armada also offers an app store of its own and others’ apps for working with generated data on location (think sensors warning of pending needed maintenance or unexpected visitors at a remote mining site). Then there’s the hardware: a weatherized mobile data center in a box called a Galleon that can fit on the back of a flatbed truck, and which can house racks of GPUs, or graphics processing units, crucial to running AI models.

“We need more companies to try to solve problems where, if the tech works and the company is successful, the world is a better place for it.”

While startups like OpenAI and Anthropic have raised billions of dollars in a race to build bigger and more powerful AI models, Armada is one of the most promising of another wave of startups looking to unlock their capabilities for business uses far from Silicon Valley or an Amazon Web Services data center. Cofounded with Jon Runyan last December, Armada already employs 60 people in the Bay Area and Seattle, where it’s hiring away from the cloud and AI staff at cloud heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft.

Armada has no customers beyond a proof-of-concept trial, meaning its revenue remains at zero so far. But investors are bullish about its opportunities in energy, manufacturing and mining, as well as defense. In January, venture capital firms Founders Fund, Lux Capital and Shield Capital led a $15 million seed round into Armada that valued the company at more than $50 million. Last month, Armada raised an additional $40 million in a Series A funding round led by return investor 8090 Industries that included those funds as well as new investors Felicis, Contrary Capital, Marlinspike Partners, Valor and Koch Industries.

Armada’s valuation is now already approaching $250 million after the funding, a source with knowledge told Forbes. Armada declined to comment on its valuation.

And with ambitions to score contracts with the world’s largest industrial players and the U.S. Department of Defense, Armada represents a high-difficulty, high-upside new act for Wright, who was last seen in the public eye resigning from his previous role as CEO of AI software unicorn DataRobot in July 2022 amid layoffs and an insider trading scandal. Wright declined to comment on that situation beyond a written statement. But with Armada, he believes he’s back with technology that can be a major picks-and-shovels provider in delivering real results from the AI boom.

“We need more companies to try to solve problems where, if the tech works and the company is successful, the world is a better place for it,” Wright said. “Hopefully people see Armada and say, ‘Hey, that was something the world needed.’”


A group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay in 2021.

AFP via Getty Images

Armada got its start at a private conference hosted by a major SpaceX investor, 137 Ventures, in Park City, Utah in November 2022. One of the firm’s partners had been tinkering with possible business uses for Starlink, even taking out several patents. But SpaceX, reportedly expected to be valued at $175 billion in the private market, had other priorities than building a software stack on top of its satellites, or getting into a new hardware product line. With the blessing of on-site executives, the firm approached Wright, a free agent after the DataRobot controversy a few months before.

A lawyer by training — he worked with cofounder Runyan at a Bay Area law firm serving startups more than a decade ago — Wright was general counsel at app performance manager AppDynamics when, two days before it was scheduled to go public in January 2017, it was acquired in a shock move by Cisco for $3.7 billion. Wright had been promoted to chief operating office before leaving for DataRobot in 2020, where he became CEO the following March. Runyan, meanwhile, was coming off a long stint as general counsel of access manager Okta, including during its 2017 IPO.

For what could prove to be a capital intensive, complicated business with multiple products and large-sized target customers that aren’t used to working with startups, Wright and Runyan seemed ideal founders, investors said, their networks more than making up for a lack of deep AI research chops, or direct hardware experience. As technical leaders, they’d quickly brought in CTO Pradeep Nair, a former vice president of engineering at VMware and Microsoft’s Azure cloud division, and chief AI officer Prag Mishra, who had been leading AI and machine learning for Amazon’s health unit and previously been a research lead at Microsoft.

“It seemed like the right time and the right team,” said Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens. “A lot of times these really complicated tech problems end up being overvalued, and the business side of the equation gets undervalued. Armada has a great deal of competence in both.”

And investors were unfazed by Wright’s exit at DataRobot, where he and other executives resigned following a report of insider stock sales made by the executives, including Wright, that had not been made available to rank-and-file staff.

“People that were involved came out saying they had a desire to work with Dan again, so that ultimately was a very positive signal for me,” said Lux general partner Shahin Farshchi. “There wasn’t anything from that experience that would give me less confidence in Dan’s ability to pull this off, his ethics and his moral compass in doing so,” added Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens.

Wright declined to answer specific Forbes questions about his DataRobot tenure. “My track record of helping build successful technology companies speaks for itself,” he said in a written statement. “I look forward to continuing to support DataRobot’s current leadership [in] any way I can and applying the lessons I learned there and at AppDynamics toward building a generational company at Armada with our incredible team.”


An Armada Galleon close-up.

Armada

Made out of multiple layers of interior lining and and a reinforced outer casing of military-grade heavy gauge steel, a Galleon can fit on the back of a truck or rail car for its journey to a far flung location; there on a trailer or level ground, it can be up-and-running within 48 hours. The real value, however, is what’s inside: in the standard 40 ft. Galleon, six racks of computer processing units, or CPUs, or GPUs; in a 20 ft. version, the housing for three.

Armada has a Galleon up and running at its Seattle offices, where it runs a number of AI applications in demos, but for now, it’s unclear how many are active in the wild. Asked to connect Forbes to customers, Armada introduced Nexa Resources, a publicly-traded mining company currently conducting a proof-of-concept trial, CIO Marcelo Alves Santos said by email. Setting up remote data centers at mines could otherwise take as long as eight months, according to Santos. “Collaborating with Armada offers the prospect of more efficient, quicker and adaptable operations, a significant step up from our current capabilities,” he said. But Armada later clarified that Nexa isn’t currently operating any Galleons in the field.

A further-along trial is happening at a well-known media company, whose executive in charge asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak in an official capacity. There, Armada’s Commander software suite, and specifically its Connect software for managing Starlink satellite usage, is proving the difference between the SpaceX satellites serving as a primary source of internet connectivity for streaming live events. By bonding up to seven Starlink terminals (on-ground receivers working with the satellites) together as one, the media company can ensure a high bandwidth baseline it couldn’t by working with SpaceX alone, the person said.

“If you’re on the tip of Africa, that’s a lot of data to be sending back to an East Coast Amazon data center,” the person said. “We can get richer content at a lower footprint.”

SpaceX did not respond to a comment request. Armada called its relationship with SpaceX a “close collaboration” but declined to answer specific questions.

“This has been the bane of our existence: we deployed a lot of great assets, but now there isn’t enough bandwidth to do things.”

That media company is also exploring the use of Armada’s other software, specifically a group of AI apps called EdgeAI. Products within the EdgeAI suite include a tool that can automatically detect and analyze motion in streaming video; another can process real-time automated narration. Handling such tasks at their source could allow an event streamer to run more local calculations, such as measuring the size of a wave or distance of a launch, and help identify the best camera angles to be sending back.

Other apps from inside Armada and through partners can have more industrial value, like filling out information forms required by regulators, or making maintenance suggestions before there is an emergency, the company said. At least one railroad company, which Armada declined to name, is testing the use of its apps to scan and sort containers at a transit hub; Armada also envisions uses in forest fire prevention and other safety uses where sensor data is often only analyzed after an emergency today, Runyan said.

David Dunaway, a retired vice admiral and the former commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, said he’s interested in how Armada’s tech can help the military process streaming video to make faster and better decisions, such as knowing whether it’s safe to fire on an aerial combat mission. Dunaway is actively advising Armada on its approach to the Department of Defense, where the startup is working to bid for initial contracts. “This has been the bane of our existence: we deployed a lot of great assets, but now there isn’t enough bandwidth to do things,” Dunaway said. “Nobody else is putting this kind of compute down-range,” he added, referring to operational areas closer to combat zones.

Of course, such contracts could take years to procure. Stephens, also the cofounder of Anduril, a defense-focused startup that was reportedly seeking a $10 billion valuation in October, noted that Anduril has its own compute capability housed within its autonomous air vehicles. And another past Founders Fund investment, publicly-traded Palantir, already works with customers within the U.S. government and heavy industries to provide AI software. At least one SpaceX investor who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said they had declined to invest in Armada over concerns its technology would be too easily matched by rivals over time.

All the more reason for Armada and its founders to announce themselves — and tout their big-business credentials — ahead of a competitive land grab. “You can’t come in and just spin out of Stanford and run this kind of company,” claimed Runyan. “Dan and I have been building networks in Silicon Valley for 20 years.”

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