The aerial drone industry has had its ups and downs, as startups interested in the consumer market pivoted to commercial applications a few years ago. More recently, the U.S. government and others have expressed concern over China’s dominance in the technology. VOXL Flight, an open development platform for autonomous drone navigation, addresses both of these issues.
In late March, San Diego-based ModalAI announced the release of VOXL Flight, which it said combines a PX4 flight controller and a companion computer on a single circuit board. Not only does this design reduce weight, cabling, and cost, but it also enables drone makers to get their products to market more quickly, according to the company.
ModalAI spun out of Qualcomm Technologies Inc. in 2018, and its technologies are intended to help aerial and ground robots autonomously navigate while communicating over 4G and 5G networks.
“I led robotics research and development at Qualcomm for 20 years, and we had built a full stack of technology,” said Chad Sweet, CEO of ModalAI. “Qualcomm was a generous partner, giving us a running start to advance the technology and productize it.”
VOXL Flight capabilities
VOXL Flight use artificial intelligence and smartphone networks to enable autonomous drones to fly beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS). It includes Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM), has deep-learning object recognition for obstacle avoidance, and can support for up to four image sensors. The system can operate in GPS-denied and “challenging” outdoor environments, said the company.
VOXL Flight uses Qualcomm Flight Pro UAS processors for camera, security, and communications. It is also compatible with open-source technologies including the Robot Operating System (ROS), Linux, and PX4.
“It’s more than a DIY flight controller,” Sweet told The Robot Report. “It’s a sophisticated open development platform for SUAS [small unmanned aerial systems].”
In addition, VOXL Flight supports LTE-based BVLOS capabilities to avoid obstacles and operate autonomously on the wireless network. It has a Digital Data Link (DDL) radio modem for industrial applications operating on private networks. The system can also support video encoding of 4k h.264 for MIPI, USB, and HDMI camera payloads.
“After developers install and configure VOXL Flight, the drone can navigate autonomously indoors, outdoors, and around obstacles,” Sweet stated. “VOXL Flight accelerates autonomy by reducing the most difficult parts of hardware and software design for autonomous systems – a true out-of-the-box solution.”
VOXL Flight is made in America
Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last year warned that systems made by DJI (Shenzhen Dà-Jiāng Innovations Technology Co.), the global market leader in SUAS, could be sending location data to China. The U.S. Department of the Interior stopped flying more than 800 drones in October. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 (NDAA) prohibited U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) personnel from buying SUAS components from China.
The Drone Origin Security Enhancement Act, which has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, would ban the DHS from buying or using foreign-manufactured drones. ModalAI manufactures all of its printed circuit-board assemblies in Southern California.
“Qualcomm invested in cellular-based communications for SUAS. From designing circuit boards to full-level application software, our goal is to make as much as possible here,” Sweet said. “We use contract manufacturers, which is not as cheap or easy as buying something from China. We’re the only ones doing it.”
“We teamed up with the Defense Innovation Unit in late 2018, and VOXL Flight is a culmination of a lot of that work,” he added. ModalAI said it plans to provide the U.S. armed forces “with state-of-the-art technology for Group 1 unmanned aerial systems.”
ModalAI sees more commercial drone applications
ModalAI said its products can also support applications such as delivering packages or medical supplies, as well as precision agriculture and infrastructure inspections. VOXL, the predecessor to VOXL Flight, participated in tests of Uber Eats for drone deliveries of food last year.
“We see two drone markets — enterprise and military,” Sweet said. “It’s of course been very up and down, from consumer hype to industrial, but the enterprise market is growing quickly, with new applications and companies coming online very day. Things have shifted in the market, creating opportunities.”
“The first is the NDAA. Government agencies are very big customers, which trickles into interest in using domestic products for information and product security,” he explained. “The second is that the FAA started its Part 107 licensing program in 2017. It was not perfect, but it opened things from ‘You can’t do anything with SUAS,’ to ‘Now you can do it in a limited fashion.'”
“There are now hundreds of thousands of pilots for news stations, utility inspections, and real estate,” said Sweet. “Once you find something that is useful and saves time, lives, and money, growth happens automatically. It might not match the early hype, but there is certainly a growing base of activity. We’ve had a lot of interest from the military and delivery services and about indoor navigation inside warehouses.”
“Our system is also applicable to autonomous vehicles and ground robots,” he added. “VOXL Flight’s predecessor didn’t have built-in flight, and the motor controller was more vision-based guidance. VOXL Flight can also be used for tunnel exploration, like in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, but as a startup, we had to stay focused on our customers.”
Lessons for developers
“It’s hard for big companies to make technology accessible,” acknowledged Sweet. “We learned that this market needs open platforms. ModalAI has lots of multi-decade veterans from Qualcomm, and we wanted to reach a broad set of customers.”
“VOXL Flight is a synthesis of everything we’ve learned, with expandable features, developer support, and documentation,” he said. “When the DoD banned DJI, people thought it would be easy to replace, but it turned out to be a lot harder to find something equivalent.”
“Our advantage was that we could move quickly and do sophisticated things that others couldn’t do toward monetization,” Sweet said. “We see ourselves as R&D folks, every day investing in new technologies. The sky’s the limit — until you see robots everywhere, which I do think is going to happen.”