“Is this real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Open your eyes...look up to the skies and see…” - Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
Nine years ago, this song could have been my anthem. My real life was a fantasy; I was leading a team of engineers at Qualcomm and working on the most groundbreaking robotics and drone technology. At the time, Qualcomm was known as the leader in the smartphone industry, with their Snapdragon chipsets powering a breadth of mobile devices. Our team set out to prove that Snapdragon could power more than just phones; never in our wildest dreams did we think it could make it to Mars!
Our mission, as we chose to accept it, was to design, develop and test iterations of printed circuit boards (PCB) that enabled ground and aerial vehicles to achieve autonomy. We wanted to create a PCB smart enough that it could continue to operate autonomously, or on its own if it ever lost connection. Eventually, one iteration became the Snapdragon Flight which now serves as the brains of the Mars helicopter, the Ingenuity, en route to the Red Planet via the Mars 2020 mission by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
Once they land on Mars in February 2021, The Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter will complete tasks that will lay the groundwork for human exploration of Mars. The Perseverance’s mission is to crawl along the Martian soil and collect samples of the terrain which will help scientists understand the climate and geography on Mars. It will also attempt to answer the burning question about life on Mars by searching for signs of past life. The Ingenuity’s mission is to demonstrate controlled flight on Mars by conducting several flight tests.
The Ingenuity’s autonomous features powered by Snapdragon Flight are vital to the success of the mission because it will need to fly independently - 55.5 million miles away from command. David Wettergreen, research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, commented that, “autonomy is important for it to enable it to keep doing tasks, to explore on its own, to make progress, rather than just sitting there waiting for the next time it hears from us.”
Despite this global pandemic, which sometimes feels like we are caught in a landslide with no escape from reality, I’m thrilled that we can still look up to the sky and dream. What we worked on years ago is enabling the next generation of space exploration.
And now, the dream continues. Since leaving Qualcomm, I co-founded ModalAI, a San Diego start-up where we develop robot and drone perception communications systems to accelerate vehicle autonomy. In collaboration with Qualcomm, we evolved the Snapdragon Flight into VOXL, a plug-and-play PX4 compatible computing platform equipped with GPS-denied navigation and obstacle avoidance. Developers use our computing platform and developer drones to achieve autonomy in their own vehicles. We have grown fast; nearly doubling in size in the past six months and helped several industries including retail, business security and the U.S. government activate autonomy. I’m excited for ModalAI’s future, as we strive to bring autonomy to robots and drones here on Earth and in outer space.
Chad Sweet is the Co-Founder and CEO of ModalAI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org