When drones are no longer limited to flying only outdoors, when robotic avatars can make intelligent and human-like decisions, when machines can perform dangerous tasks instead of people, the world is a safer place. And, we’re helping build that world.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Alholm, a six-time CEO with a successful track record of accomplishment in the technology industry and startups. Jeff’s ventures have raised hundreds of millions in investment dollars and created many billions in exit valuations. His technology teams have developed dozens of patented inventions.
Jeff co-founded Digital Aerolus, Inc, developers of autonomous technologies, and currently serves as the company’s CEO. Digital Aerolus combines artificial intelligence with advanced mathematics to create software for vehicles that fly, drive, dive, or swim. The company’s first commercial products using these technologies are the Aertos industrial inspection drones.
Jeff led the development of many technology products and their underlying IP/patents, including:
- Millimeter wave scanner — whole body imaging systems used in airport security, military, medical, and surveillance applications
- Smartphone — the first smartphone; based on Apple’s Newton platform, CTIA’s Product of the Year for 1996
- Wi-Fi 802.11 — the underlying MAC technology and chipsets for the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard
- Pulse Oximeter — technology for devices that measure and monitor blood oxygen levels
- Capnograph — instruments that monitor the concentration or partial pressure of CO2 in respiratory gases. Physicians use capnography to assess patient ventilation during anesthesia; capnographs are required in all U.S. medical operating suites.
Thank you so much for joining us! Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I spent my early engineering days at Child, a computer-graphics startup that created one of the first computer graphic workstations. This experience was a life-changer: the team was small, and loaded with bright university students, young engineers, and visionaries that worked tirelessly to create cutting-edge tech. I’m still proud of that experience. It continues to frame my motivation to build lean teams of brilliant people that invent technologies and create new products.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m a story collector, so I have many stories. I’d like to share this one:
Larry Tesler was a pioneer in the computer industry. His work made computers easier and more natural to use, and as a result they became more accessible to millions of people. I was fortunate to meet Larry as a young man, and what he said and did affect me. Larry’s death earlier this year moved me to call one of my mentors to thank my friend for his investment in me, and for introducing me to Larry. Last week, I found myself at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). In the SRI lobby, I stood looking at their history display, struck by how many times exceptional people and inventions from SRI and PARC (Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center) have collided with my life. Maybe it’s not a well-known fact, but for the first handful of years that the world used WiFi/802.11, all its chipsets ran a special-purpose processor we created from ideas we learned from Tessler, Thacker, Metcalf and others at PARC. The multi-dimensional mathematics Digital Aerolus uses now in its Aertos drones retain elements from Child’s early work in computer graphics.
I collect experiences as well as stories, and all of them in aggregation have shaped my life and my career. I’ve been fortunate in the extreme to have intersected with so many exceptional people who have worked to change the world — and succeeded. There, that’s my little footnote in history.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Seymour Cray was of the fathers of supercomputing, and his philosophy has shaped my work. I identify with Seymour in many ways.
Cray was from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. He loved to sail, and he built his own sailboats. At the end of every summer, rather than storing his sailboat for the winter, Cray would burn his boat, and then spend the winter creating a new and better one in his workshop; at least that is often repeated story. He insisted on looking forward, living in the present and not in the past. It can be tempting to live by looking in the rearview mirror or by comparing to others, but like Seymour I find these approaches to be unproductive.
Seymour Cray was soft-spoken and he valued his midwestern roots. But that did not stop him from always trying to find a radically different approach to solving a problem. Cray said: “One of my guiding principles is ‘don’t do anything that other people are doing.’”
Back in the early days, one of Child’s founders shoved Alan Kay’s Ph.D. dissertation into my hands and instructed me to read and memorize Kay’s “Dynabook.” In 1972, the Dynabook dissertation proposed an advanced tablet computer system that was nonetheless simple enough for a child to understand. My boss instructed me to dedicate my life to fulfilling its promise. Especially within my work developing, Wi-Fi and smartphones, I believe, have contributed to that vision.
Kay wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”. I took that concept to heart, and I continue to let it guide my work and my life.
Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change the World”?
At Digital Aerolus, we’ve created something radically new: a framework for navigation and autonomous behaviors designed for vehicles that move, fly, or swim.
The framework has two components: first, we’ve reinvented the underlying mathematics. We believe that our Folded Geometry Code represents an entirely new calculus for managing platform movement in translational and rotational space. FGC is especially effective when platforms move in constantly changing environments, encounter emerging obstacles or threats, and must manage reams of dynamic data from an array of sensors. Secondly, we designed our overarching autonomous system we call the Mind of Motion Framework to use this calculus. We based MMF on models of how the human mind works, and it manages moving platforms in a more predictive, less reactive way.
In the early days of an emerging technology industry, it’s typical to try to “force-fit” existing technologies towards solving a new problem. Autonomous mobility has been no exception to this. Here at Digital Aerolus, we instead took a step a step back to examine the first principle fundamentals, and to look for ways to navigate in 3-D space that extend and transcend the traditional approaches.
The industrial drones we created to capitalize FGC and MMF are turning heads today. They fly semi-autonomously, and navigate stably and predictably with minimal drift, without using GPS, optical flow, LIDAR, or other externally referencing sensors. As we add external sensors, FGC and MMF manage all inputs and project probabilities — processing like a human mind does. FGC and MMF seamlessly fuse various inputs to map them in our multi-dimensional mathematical space.
Our team has worked hard to design these systems and invent these technologies. We protect them with patents, and we’re proud they’re now serving our customers in the marketplace.
How do you think this will change the world?
Our autonomous system equips vehicles to look at the world differently — in a predictive, and not just a reactive, way. We believe this approach will make the world a safer and more efficient place.
The Mind of Motion Framework is particularly powerful: it quickly processes avalanches of input data to predict potential threats and then to effect changes based on a quickly-changing environment and threats. MMF integrates complex operators of all orientations, accelerations, velocities, probabilities, interactions, and noise. Then, it projects how the host vehicle should behave. MMF is managing the world continuously in real-time, coherently and concurrently, for vision, autonomous behaviors, various sensor data, and flight/drive operators. It maps the probability of interactions and collisions for all projected objects, including the platform, and projects a probabilistic cloud of interactions based on real physics. Other approaches to autonomous navigation management are simply at a disadvantage.
This is truly transformative. When drones are no longer limited to flying only outdoors, when robotic avatars can make intelligent and human-like decisions, when machines can perform dangerous tasks instead of people, the world is a safer place. And, we’re helping build that world.
In the 19th century, the Luddites burned down factories and destroyed textile machines to protest that the mechanical looms were taking jobs away from people. The fear that robots might replace people has deep historical roots, and today’s autonomous technology is raising that fear again.
Aertos industrial drones explore places that people simply shouldn’t enter, performing inspections in challenging locations safely and more efficiently than any competing option. We fly inside nuclear reactors, deep in underground mine shafts, through tunnels and culverts, under bridges dense with signal-defying steel and concrete, and into other environments that were until recently beyond the reach of any vehicle.
This capacity, with its growing sets of autonomy and artificial intelligence behaviors, is enabling new jobs and opportunities. The personal computer revolution left some stenographers unemployed, in the same way that Ford and Firestone disrupted wagon wheel makers. Harnessing the power of any innovative tool disrupts the status quo. But, doing this catalyzes people to think differently, and creates new opportunities that none of us can predict.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
We’ve experienced several fulcrums and tipover points.
The first arrived years ago when we studied the current framework for motion and autonomy and realized how broken it was. Traditional models of motion models are based on century-old math — composed in a world that could never conceive today’s world. Historically, descriptions of body motions predicate upon 7 dimensions: the 3-D axes (x, y, z), plus yaw, pitch, roll, and time. Add the various velocities, accelerations, state noises, and interactions required by a modern navigation system, and dimension management increases threefold — or more. Yes, traditional methods can manage all these dimensions. But, the edge limits loom closer than you would think. For example, watch a conventional UAV try to fly underneath a highway bridge — if you care to risk it. When it loses its GPS lock and external sensors, it effectively falls out of the sky.
Einstein and his contemporaries managed similar dimensional problems in general relativity by representing them with tensors. Yet, tensors turn out to be poorly suited for a world that needs machines with autonomous behaviors. So, the tipping point was realizing we’d need an entirely new ground-up framework to deal with the complexity modern navigation systems would require. We decided to start at the base of the pyramid, down at the level of the foundational mathematics operators. We hoped to start there, to design a system with inherent stability that didn’t reference external sensors, and then design a test vehicle around it. If it could turn on instantly and understand where it was in reference to where it’s going, we’d have a scaffold ready for us to integrate our vision of autonomy. So initially, because boats and cars are expensive, we built a very unique drone.
Another A-Ha moment was realizing how powerful our Mind of Motion Framework was likely to become for all autonomous platforms. We conceived and designed the MMF for power and flexibility. Still, on one recent day I watched one of our pilots fly a Digital Aerolus UAVs for another real customer with a challenging practical use case, and the results struck me like a sledgehammer. Once again, companies and investors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars chasing problems without attending to the foundational issues. We started with the foundation, and that strategy is paying off.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
The AI and autonomy space is awash with noise and wild speculation. Frankly, we see lots of unrealistic “snake oil sales” that won’t resolve the customer’s needs. When our customers see what we’re already doing and genuinely understand how our FGC and MMF system works, they have their own A-Ha moment and realize the fundamental advantage our technologies offer.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
I’m the father of six kids and six startups. I could spend a whole interview on just this question!
So, since I’m a Winston Churchill fan, I’ll go with 5 repeats of “Never, never, never give up or give in.”
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Businesses are best when people come first. Treat the people on our team how you want to be treated, with great value and the highest respect. The Golden Rule is a pretty basic rule, but it’s still the best.
I also believe that good things arrive to those who prepare themselves. Charles Duhigg reminds us in “The Power of Habits” that successful companies like Microsoft or Intel fully expect the challenges and problems they find along the way. We must continually construct habits that will embrace unexpected challenges and successfully address them. Doing this defines us, and the companies we lead.
I also admire the somewhat-obscure “Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership”. Here, Joseph Jaworski teaches us the habit of remaining aware of the world around us, of stepping back and observing, and of educating ourselves to be more aware and prepared. I like to treat every interaction as an opportunity. In a similar way, I like how philosopher/theologian Dallas Willard recommended viewing our lives as a “Divine Conspiracy.”
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
The upcoming autonomy revolution is far, far more than just cars. Partner with us!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.