Verizon Robotics Business Technology’s new vice president of product development sees an analogy with the gaming world to explain what’s ahead for both drones and robotics. “For 20 years, game companies wanted to bring the power of the cloud to TVs in gamers’ living rooms,” says Joe Polastre, who holds a PhD in computer science. “It’s a simple premise but it’s challenging technologically. You need fast, real-time connectivity and sufficiently powerful computing in the cloud. Now, that vision is achieved. A gamer has no idea if a game is running locally on their Xbox or in the cloud.”
This is similar to the seamless, reliable and extremely fast experiences that are opening up with 5G. “Before, we were limited by what the network could do. With 5G, robots can be sent out into the world, report back to decision makers in real time, or be configured to autonomously complete an avalanche of other actions. This opens up new classes of what you can do with drones.”
Leading into the age of ubiquitous connectivity
Joe joins Verizon Robotics Business Technology, which includes Skyward, from Airbus, where he headed UTM (uncrewed traffic management) products. Previously, he was CTO and co-founder at Sentilla, held development and product management positions at Medium, IBM, Microsoft, and Intel, and won the Silicon Valley 40 Under 40 award.
At Verizon, Joe leads the teams solving the technology and go-to-market challenges around what he calls ubiquitous connectivity. He sees this as a new era and a moment of convergence, combining
- advances in aerial technology (like more energy efficient batteries, and smaller but powerful graphics processing capabilities right on the drone),
- the massive compute power that’s been built in the cloud,
- and ultra fast broadband networks, supplied by telecom providers like Verizon.
“The combination of these technologies makes for something greater than the sum of its parts,” he says. “When you put together these pieces — the technological developments, massive cloud-based compute capacity, and extraordinarily fast connections between devices — they unlock an entire new class of innovations that can fundamentally change the way we interact with the world around us.”
Joining an industry that intersects multiple tech spaces
Asked about what drew him to working in drone software, Joe is quick to mention its “collage of cultures.” “Drones are a really interesting field at the intersection of discovering how robotics, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and connectivity come together with established industries. You have people who come from the internet software space, the ‘let’s change the world’ types. Then you have seasoned safety experts from the aviation space. Then there are hands-on engineers, the sorts who like tinkering with cars, boats, and planes. And also the network experts.” He notes that this mix creates opportunity for new thinking, “for example, how can we leverage simulation and machine learning to more thoroughly test systems rather than only relying on actual flight test hours?”
Joe is well positioned to understand those who ask, “the technology works, why can’t we get instant permission to fly?” and those who ask “what are the risks?” He completed his doctoral work at UC Berkeley researching the Internet of Things, is a serial entrepreneur, and has a pilot’s license.
“There’s a reason there is just one fatality for every 7 trillion passenger miles in the air. Air travel is the safest form of transportation by far because it’s highly regulated, requires rigorous training, runs on standard operating procedures, and has a strong safety culture. As an industry, we need to see that we’re part of a global vision for integrating flying robots. We’re moving toward autonomous flight, and we shouldn’t take shortcuts. It won’t happen overnight. New waves like this take time and patience and commitment.”
Immediate technical challenges, future capabilities
Battery technology that enables lightweight power and longer flight times is going to happen, Joe notes, as advances from mobile phones and electric car batteries transfer to drones. Aircraft detection and collision avoidance is another interesting research area he sees making strong progress. For UTM to become reality, “We have to be confident an uncrewed aircraft will see a crop duster or helicopter and not get in its way.”
Soon, drones will be able to offload data in flight and be immediately retasked to do something else based on it. Repurposing in flight and multiple drones sharing a task are two innovation areas that excite Joe. “Imagine a drone monitoring a power plant detects an anomaly and then is prompted to have a closer look right then. Or in a search and rescue operation, one drone seeks then another swoops in with rescue gear, like working in a flock. This is the sort of capability edge computing on 5G is going to bring.”
Three things everyone should be talking about but isn’t
“Aerial vehicles don’t have to look like today’s drones,” Joe points out. “We need to be thinking more about airframe design, what drones could look like, how they might impact people on the ground, and what happens if they fail.”
Another issue he thinks is overlooked is public perception. “We think of drones as a clean technology and, compared to fossil fuel-powered vehicles, it is. But the pollution drones create is noise. Fast rotors create noise. And people don’t want noisy things flying over or near their homes. We need technology to solve this because there will be backlash. Imagine every homeowners association and every municipality putting drone noise abatement rules in place.”
Sourcing of materials for drones and software is another area needing more attention by the industry. “If responsible sourcing isn’t part of the procurement process for software and hardware, the public will resist. Organizations need to make this part of decision-making on who their vendors are.”
Connecting the world with real-time interactions
Joe believes success for Verizon Robotics and Skyward rides on making a clear case for what can be done with drones with remote deployment, when pilots can be far away or drones may be autonomous.
“I live down the road from Creech Air Force Base where the pilots fly drones that are halfway round the world all day, and then they go home for dinner with their families. It is incredible that we are already doing this today! How do we make this technology mainstream, like the transition of the Internet from a defense network to the center of commerce? What are the possibilities for us to make people’s lives better by solving things that were either impossible, too costly, or too complex before?”
“When people see how drones can make the electric grid more reliable so we have fewer wildfires, or keep roads and bridges in working order, or help farmers water just enough based on real-time conditions, that’s success. I envision a drone charged and ready to deploy by every cell tower, every power transmission line, every agricultural field, or anywhere else they can help, improving lives.”
Get to know Joe
The need for speed and catching air are themes that run through many of Joe’s pastimes. In addition to flying a Cirrus SR22T, Joe has sailed the Med, Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, and is a black diamond skier. He also likes a good round of golf and live music; in younger days, he was a big supporter of independent musicians, recording concerts for aspiring artists.
Interested in joining Verizon Robotics Technology on the Skyward team? See our open positions.