NASA JPL recently announced that they are planning to send ModalAI VOXL to the moon as part of their CADRE autonomous mapping robots. We spoke to the co-founder and CEO of ModalAI, Chad Sweet, at the 2023 Commercial UAV Show in Las Vegas. ModalAI is a San Diego-based company that specialises in research and development in the drone and robotic market. In the five years since their establishment, ModalAI has continued to push the limits of drone manufacturing and its technological capabilities.
ModalAI spun out from Qualcomm in 2018. This is where Chad, who has over 10 years of experience in the drone industry, was working as the lead on the research and development robotics team. At that time, the team was focused on leveraging smartphone technology for UAVs. This innovative concept contributed to changing the standard way of thinking about this technology and opened up the capabilities for mission-specific robotics.
In the course of the interview, Chad outlined the specifics of ModalAI’s developments. He said that the team still operates with some of the same processes used at Qualcomm, although their current primary focus is on launching their technology onto the market. He introduced us to ModalAI’s core computing platform, VOXL 2. The UAS Framework autopilot is their smallest single-board AI autopilot to date. It has many capabilities, including video encoding, GPU, deep learning, obstacle avoidance and GPS-denied navigation. These features are already in the SDK, which Chad and his team decided to keep open. He said, “Folks buy the VOXL 2 and then modify the code to advance their specific use case. This enables access to the navigation intelligence for the physical world. We have developed a highly integrated mobile, autonomous AI module that enables enterprise-quality robot perception and navigation at consumer price points.”
Chad explained that ModalAI set out to build a quality product with a strong platform and software stack. To create such an ecosystem, he believes the best move as a B2B technology provider is to maintain an open structure. “Our target customers are engineers who like to have control and the ability to build things. It's just good marketing and a good product fit to make your technology open.”
Chad went further into this concept and explained that ModalAI is also working closely with PX4 and several other packages on their open format platform. Chad told us that the open architecture helps the team remain focused on building a quality product. It also allows the customer to gain direct control over their own feature capabilities. Engineers have the ability to fix their own bugs while business-facing customers can see and identify the code and either fix or suggest changes. He told us he enjoys the pulse within the ecosystem and believes it builds connectivity between ModalAI and the drone community.
Chad told us he feels that the development of UAV technology is only just beginning. He explained that there are plenty of exciting opportunities at the forefront of the industry. He said the industrial enterprise commercial ecosystem is thriving, which means it is now understood that this is one of the most valuable tools which has led to a rise in the demand for revenue.
He was inspired by some of the new projects, which he said would lead to new applications to optimise efficiency and reduce the risk of dangerous work such as inspections.
When asked about his views on which direction drone technology will take in the future, Chad said, “ I think there will be more companies very successfully deploying use cases. Applications will continue to get more and more niche. A camera on a gimbal won't be enough, but I think that'll be widely proliferated. We currently spend a lot of time on indoor capabilities. Navigating autonomously indoors seems to be a really big part of the next wave.”
Chad discussed the challenges that came with the regulations back in 2015 and how they compare with the current day. He told us his initial concerns about the regulations differed from the setbacks he had expected. He felt that the industry was still finding its feet and dealing with operational issues and, as such, the regulations correctly acted as limiters for the deployment of an immature technology.
Chad said the technology is more widely understood with the combination of ModalAI, their customers and their competitors' capabilities. He believes that now there is an opportunity to push the boundaries of the regulations with a mature and safe technology.
ModalAI began as three people in a garage and has grown to 40 in the past five years. The team is split 50/50 into engineering and operations. They are currently focused on research and development as well as building out models. ModalAI are investing in new technology to improve their software stack and hardware to expand their peripheral ecosystem. Chad told us that the company has a clear roadmap for their future.
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