The Singapore-based CEO and founder Pulkit Jaiswal is one of Asia’s 10 most outstanding innovators under the age of 35
In Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a spacecraft bound for the planet Jupiter is operated by artificial intelligence, a sentient computer known as “Hal” (an acronym that stands for heuristically programme algorithmic computer).
Released in 1968, before the first manned mission to land on the moon a year later, the film captured the imaginations of generations after, including that of Pulkit Jaiswal.
“It’s my favourite movie of all time,” says the 23-year-old Jaiswal. “If you asked anybody then what the future was going to be like, they’ll be like, ‘We’re going to be on Mars in 2001.’ But it turns out, [almost] 50 years later, we’re nowhere. We can’t even send a person to the moon.”
Jaiswal, who was honoured as one of 10 outstanding innovators in the region under the age of 35 at the EmTech Asia conference in Singapore last week organised by MIT Technology Review (a magazine with over a century’s history published by the eponymous institution), is no ordinary sci-fi movie buff.
He is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SwarmX, a drone technology company whose mission is to “have swarms of fully autonomous robots gather information and help [people] make data-driven decisions for the common good”.
SwarmX’s flagship product, the Hive, as its name suggests, acts as a base for the worker bee drones to return to after they perform their tasks outside of the Hive.
“[It] is a drone docking station that allows for [battery] charging and data processing [of the drones] all in one single system so you no longer need human operations teams to go out and execute drone missions for you,” says Jaiswal.
These missions are primarily security-related ones currently. Imagine drones that conduct surveillance of a given area during a scheduled flight, and alerting humans through a command and control centre (named HiveMind) if a suspected intruder is spotted.
“We decided to go with security applications because it’s the lowest-hanging fruit for us. We just do simple analysis based on what the infra-red camera [on the drone] is seeing,” says Jaiswal. “Let’s say there is no human who’s supposed to be in an area and we find a human being, we just send the coordinates to the respective organisation and they send their ground forces to check it out.”
While the company is currently in talks to potentially collaborate with governmental security agencies in Singapore, Djibouti, and the Middle East, it is also starting to explore other capabilities for its drones.
“We’re working with mining companies in Eastern Africa. They make use of something know as a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensor to detect cracks in the mines and also to map out the entire terrain so you can get a 3D model of the area that the drone is flying above,” says Jaiswal. “This is very useful to the mines because, as they excavate areas, they want to have an idea of how deep they are digging. So this is something we’re working on.”
Jaiswal’s passion for drones and drone technology is obvious, especially when one considers that SwarmX, founded in April 2015, is the second startup — after Garuda Robotics, which he has since parted ways with — in this field that he is founding or co-founding.
“I’m most excited by robotics and artificial intelligence and, at this point of time, the hottest thing at their intersection is drones,” says Jaiswal.
The excitement stems partly from the belief that such innovations can enhance the efficiency with which organisations and people operate.
“So what we’re trying to do is take away the need for humans to manage the robots so they can actually look at the data and information [gathered by the drones] and make decisions. The slower the pace at which decisions are made on this planet, the slower we’ll move as a society so we’re trying to make that as fast as possible,” says Jaiswal, who adds that he started playing with drones in his teenage years.
Having dropped out of Stanford University in 2013 (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed the company’s secret R&D project to use drones to deliver packages to customers’ doorstep in December the same year) to be an entrepreneur, Jaiswal has a strict view on what defines innovation. It is a definition that treats the notion of social media as innovation with disdain.
“I use Instagram and Snapchat but I don’t think they are fundamental innovations. We [SwarmX] can use drones to assist human beings to perform a lot of repetitive tasks that consume a lot of time and create a lot of inefficiencies, thereby saving money and reducing the strain on manpower,” says Jaiswal, who was a finalist for the Thiel Fellowship (a two-year programme, previously known as 20 under 20, by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel funding young people who skip or drop out of college with a US$100,000 grant so that they can build new things).
Inspired by Elon Musk
While Jaiswal harbours no fantasy of space travel with his drones currently, his quest to innovate is inspired by Elon Musk and SpaceX. As modest as they are, parallels run between the South African inventor’s company, which recently tried unsuccessfully to land a re-usable rocket on a floating barge, and his.
“We’re both trying to put several tonnes of hardware in the air and it’s pretty risky. Now, we don’t have any drone crashes because we’ve built enough stability into our drones but, when we were first starting out, we were struggling,” says Jaiswal.
Musk’s efforts to land re-usable rockets stem primarily from an altruistic (or perhaps survivalist) desire to send people to Mars, so that Mankind is not confined to a single planet if and when an extinction event occurs, however far in the future it might be.
Jaiswal shares the same technology-for-good sentiment and allays concerns of his drones going rogue if given too much autonomy.
“Our operating system comes with several fallbacks and fail-safe switches. If a certain degree of variation from the expected behaviour is observed, the drone systems automatically go on to execute the fail-safe such as returning the drone to the Hive,” says Jaiswal.
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