Qualcomm Buys Aerial Drone Startup with Advanced Control Technology

In a small-but-significant addition to its budding interest in robotics, San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) has acquired KMel Robotics, a Philadelphia, PA-based startup that specializes in multi-rotor drones capable of coordinated, high-performance operations.

Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

In response to an Xconomy e-mail query, a Qualcomm spokesman said, “At this time the only statement we are sharing is what’s on KMel’s website.” The website’s terse statement, from co-founders Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger, merely says Qualcomm Technologies acquired KMel on February 2.

Kushleyev and Mellinger are alumni of Vijay Kumar’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Kumar is known for his expertise in developing autonomous ground and aerial robots, and in designing bio-inspired algorithms for robot swarms.

The Penn alumni founded KMel in late 2011, shortly before Mellinger got his doctorate in mechanical engineering, and established the startup in a Penn incubator. Both Mellinger and Kushleyev now describe themselves in their LinkedIn profiles as Qualcomm senior staff engineers in Philadelphia. At least several engineers made the move as well.

The acquisition is the latest development in an expansion into robotics that has been underway for years at Qualcomm. Four months ago, the world’s largest wireless chipmaker said it was planning to establish a corporate robotics accelerator with Boulder, CO-based Techstars to accelerate the development of next-generation robots and intelligent machines.

Through its Brain Corp. venture, Qualcomm also has spent years working at the frontier sof computational neuroscience and semiconductor design to develop microprocessors and IT systems based on the pulsed signal of “spiking” neurons in the brain instead of the digital ones and zeros used in conventional computing systems.

(Ryan Kuder, managing director of the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Technstars, and a representative of Brain Corp. are scheduled to give presentations at Xconomy’s fourth annual robotics event, called Robo Madness West, to be held at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, on the afternoon of April 7.)

KMel Robotics may be best known for several YouTube videos that demonstrate some amazing flight coordination. One, done for the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show under a partnership with Hong Kong-based Yuneec International, is called Flying Robot Dance, and showcases aerial maneuvers by as many as eight quadcopters. The other, dubbed Flying Robot Rockstars, was done by KMel with support from Lockheed Martin and Intel, and shows a covey of hexacopters playing their own musical versions of Also Sprach Zarathustra, Carol of the Bells, and The First Noel. In 2013, KMel also showed off its coordinated swarm capabilities in a video ad for Lexus, called Amazing in Motion.

“Some of the videos they have on YouTube show they have developed good controls over the drones using precision guidance systems (not just GPS),” said Bilal Zuberi, a partner with Lux Capital in Menlo Park who has met with Kushleyev and Mellinger a number of times.

KMel’s entertaining indoor demonstrations apparently were impressive enough to win a sole-source contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In a notice posted in December, the Pentagon R&D agency said it was asking KMel to develop control algorithms that would enable drones no bigger than 28 inches wide to fly fast (at least 20 meters a second) and autonomously through cluttered indoor environments. In a notice posted in December, DARPA said KMel would supply the drones by May 1.

“Qualcomm would probably like to be the processor of choice in the drone space with their new Snapdragon,” Zuberi wrote in an e-mail. “That processor [displayed] many possible applications at CES, and this brings downstream tech and knowledge in-house so they can offer better solutions—from drone management/auto-pilot systems to onboard image processing and stabilization.”

Zuberi added, “I don’t know how much the deal was for, but the company had not raised much capital and even a small sum could be life-changing for the founders.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • Craig Davidenko

    The sensory technology that is being developed for drones will amaze. Not only we we rely on drones we will DEPEND on them!