#Asia In Singapore, a quest to build the mother of all robotics systems

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pulkit swarmx garuda

Pulkit Jaiswal, the 22-year-old CEO and founder of Singapore-based startup SwarmX, believes that the drone industry is still in the “dark ages.”

Sure, drones have come a long way. They’ve shed their label as killing machines and captured the public imagination with their potential to deliver packages, take stunning footage, and even do search and rescue.

But most are just expensive, remote-controlled toys. Drone races are becoming a thing. Photographers mount cameras onto their manually-operated quadcopters.

It’s true autonomous drones are being employed in enterprises, where they’re starting to be used for security and surveillance. But operating them is labor intensive and costly.

SwarmX’s mission is to change that. It wants to make entire drone fleets – and not just individual drones – easy to command.

Consider how assignments are carried out today. A drone operations team deploys on-site. They survey the environment and plan the mission. The drones take off, visit the set waypoints, and return to have their batteries and memory cards swapped by hand. The cycle repeats itself again and again.

That’s not all. Missions occur in the middle of nowhere. Without sophisticated computers and fast internet connections out in the field, the team must return to headquarters just to process and upload the data to the cloud and send it to clients.

The size of the data and the huge amount of junk within is a huge problem. “If you do 10 flights, 45 to 50 minutes each, you’re gathering about a terabyte of information already. Most of it is completely useless to the client,” says Pulkit.

Inspired by bees

Pulkit looked to nature for a fix. In particular: bees and their hives. SwarmX’s innovation lies not in its aerial drones, but the platform surrounding them.

One key piece of this system is a literal Hive – a weatherproof docking bay for drones. Once the robot lands, the door opens, and the landing pad slowly descends into the Hive with the drone, like in a sci-fi movie. The landing is made using precision infra-red sensors, which Pulkit says are more accurate than GPS.

the hive landing swarmx

Once inside the metal cocoon, the drone charges its batteries through a conduction plate. A full charge takes 45 minutes. In that time, it transfers data to a processor in the Hive, converting it into a smaller format, at hundreds of megabytes instead of gigabytes.

The data is viewable over a local network, which is more secure than transferring it to clients over the cloud.

Hives can be deployed on-site in remote locations, for example at a gas pipeline an oil company wants monitored. All you need are three drones to conduct 24/7 surveillance, since they can take turns to patrol the skies and replenish their power. Almost like a real beehive.

Pulkit aims to partner up with the most popular drone manufacturers – think DJI and 3D Robotics – to make the Hive compatible with most models.

The hardware is just one piece of the SwarmX puzzle. Paired with the docking bay will be a drone operating system suitably called HiveMind, which allows users to manage drone fleets, as well as visualize and store data.

The OS can be accessed on a tablet, desktop computer, or at a command center. Whether you’re a soldier on the field or a security team at your headquarters, you can issue commands and receive data from your drones.

HiveMind uses what is calls “objective-based fleet management.” Instead of giving instructions to each individual drone, you simply define, for example, which area you want monitored, and at what time. The software figures out the rest. So there’s no need to figure out how exactly to deploy the drones to fulfill the objectives.

The software comes with machine learning algorithms that’ll eventually allow drones to recognize any signature, be it humans, cars, cranes, or tractors. Instead of blindly following orders, it could become intelligent enough to deviate from a set path to monitor a suspicious object.

The end result, it’s hoped, is the simplest mission planning yet.

Concept video for future SwarmX applications:

For Pulkit, this is his second try at a drone startup. He started Garuda Robotics two years ago but left because he believes in moving toward 100 percent drone autonomy, which he claims separates him from the rest of the enterprise drone industry.

“I’m chasing a completely different vision,” says the Thiel Fellowship 20 under 20 finalist. SwarmX, he believes, is his best attempt at creating the future of robotics. “This is it. This is my last shot,” he says.

Wearing a black sweater with ripped jeans, Pulkit dresses like a grungier Steve Jobs. “Drones today are where the internet was in ’92 and computers were in late 70s. We’re past the Apple II of the drone industry, and heading to the Macintosh,” he told me previously.

Finding investors in Asia who share his view of the technology has been hard, though. “I just don’t go to conventional VCs anymore to ask for money. Mostly ‘cause I don’t think a lot of them, especially here in the region, have a good understanding beyond software. They believe software is eating the world, and it’s true. But that’s not gonna be the case in the future.”

Citing futurist Ray Kurzweil, his major inspiration, Pulkit believes genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology will be the main drivers of an upcoming technological singularity, an event where the rise of artificial intelligence will lead to exponential technological progress with an unpredictable effect on society.

He draws the famous curve charting how technology is on the cusp of exploding upwards after a relatively flat trajectory. SwarmX, he points with his marker pen, could be at a point just before the inflection.

“People assume how quickly drones will integrate into our lives. But it’s gonna be at least five or 10 times faster than what people perceive it to be. Some people think what we’re building is too sci-fi. It’s too futuristic. But guess what? People are already using it.”

Beginning of a dream

His rhetoric may be sweeping, but it’s worth noting he’s just started on a very steep climb.

Prototypes for both the hardware and software have been built, and trials are underway with private defense companies, government organizations, and multinational companies.

One collaborator is the Singapore Police Force. SwarmX has completed trials with them, and they’re figuring out how they might use drones to secure high-profile government buildings and the border.

“This is pretty important to Singapore because there have been recent threats from certain organizations around the world,” he says.

Security and surveillance are Pulkit’s main focus areas, given how lucrative the markets are. The first deployment – he can’t say what exactly – is set for March 2016.

Nonetheless, he adds that drones can have more humanitarian uses as well. He’ll soon head to the Philippines to see how SwarmX can get involved in spotting survivors and surveying damage, especially in the aftermath of a typhoon.

The startup has raised seed money from investors, including private defense contractors, a mining tycoon, and a venture capital firm in Singapore.

“These are not short-term investors looking for short-term benefits. These are long-term investors who really see [the singularity] happening,” he says.

He assembled a team of seven to build out the dream. Joining him as co-founder is Roger Chang, former CEO of Pirate3D, a company famously known for failing to deliver on its US$1.5 million crowdfunding campaign for a 3d printer.

“[Roger’s] a hardware hacker, and he’s made tons of mistakes at Pirate3D and corrected them as well. He’s like a written book that pretty much says, ‘this is how you should not run this company.’ And that’s very valuable to us ’cause we don’t want to make mistakes. After what I’ve gone through and what Roger has gone through, we want to just get it right this time,” says Pulkit.

Another co-founder is Nigel Wylie, who Pulkit says is well-connected to the defense industry and governments. He acts as the company’s salesman. Nigel previously started a company that kills algae in water using ultrasound emitters.

Rounding out the team is a software engineer, a mechanical engineer, a data scientist, and, yes, a marine engineer.

Flashing a diagram, Pulkit explains his goal of allowing drones of various sizes and shapes to plug into the system.

“One platform to rule them all, that’s my motto,” he says.

“It extends to not just aerial drones. We’re building a Hive equivalent for water. So drone boats can plug in at the harbor and go out and kill algae. It extends to ground drones as well. We’re building the mother of all robotics systems.”

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