Young tech entrepreneur helps to revolutionize the drone industry
On one side of Pulkit Jaiswal’s business card are the words: “Do the impossible, because almost everyone has told me my ideas are merely fantasies.”
It is a quote from Howard Hughes, one of the United States’ most enigmatic businessmen and an aviation innovator. It is also an apt description of Jaiswal’s dream to transform drones from operator-guided to autonomous machines.
New Delhi-born Jaiswal is CEO and co-founder of Swarm-X, originally founded in Singapore but now headquartered in Palo Alto — the economic hub of Silicon Valley — in the US. The company has retained its Asian roots by keeping the Southeast Asian operations in Singapore and its drone manufacturing in Shenzhen, southern China.
An aspiring entrepreneur, sciencefiction fan and roboticist, Jaiswal is already a well-known figure in the tech industry. Right now, he is disrupting and reshaping how we think about and use machines, even though he is only 23 years old.
In 2015, the EmTech Asia conference organized by MIT Technology Review, a science magazine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, listed him among Asia’s 10 world-changing innovators under the age of 35. Not only is he the youngest on the EmTech list but the only one not in academia. Jaiswal is instead busy running his own business.
In 2013, he entered the Thiel Fellowship, a competitive $100,000 grant set up by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, open only to those aged 20 or under and not pursuing higher education. Only 1 percent are said to be accepted and mentored by Thiel.
While drones are rising in the public consciousness — unsurprising, considering that $700 million was invested in the industry in 2014 alone — Jaiswal confesses his interest has little to do with their popularity. If something is hot right now, he says, “it’s probably not going to be hot in the future”. Rather than imitate other manufacturers, Swarm-X aims to enhance efficiency by removing direct human control.
Jaiswal’s interest in robotics and aviation likely started with his upbringing. “You can take that as where I got my liking for flying things,” he said, referring to his parents’ work as air-traffic controllers.
In 2011, Jaiswal enrolled at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Yet less than a year later he dropped out. Wanting to experience the world and loaded with ideas, he traveled to Southern California to look at startups. There he took a few classes at Stanford University and, finding it gave him the opportunity to meet like-minded people, he soon enrolled.
This was in late 2012. At the same time he was involved with a group using drones to help Californian farmers map their vineyards.
“We were pretty much the first in the game,” explained Jaiswal, though the venture was not yet a formal company.
After spending only two years at university, Jaiswal put an end to his undergraduate studies. Instead, he felt it was time to turn the drone plan into a company.
However, an unforeseen legal wrinkle threatened to unseat the group’s plans: The US government ruled that commercial use of drones would require certification.
Jaiswal knew it would be impossible to compete with big aviation companies under the new regulations. Yet he also felt the drone idea was too tantalizing to give up.
“I didn’t want to miss out on the revolution,” he said. As some of his team members were Singaporeans, they decided to move back to Asia.
Garuda Robotics was founded in Singapore in 2013 and quickly gained traction. At Startup Asia Jakarta in 2013, the company’s drones won first place — and $10,000 — after delivering coffee to the judges’ panel by drone.
But the prize money was worth less than the publicity and goodwill it raised. So, come 2014, Garuda Robotics was working to count trees and survey land for major palm oil businesses in Indonesia and Malaysia. It was work that could be worth millions of dollars. Yet Jaiswal felt he was still in the dark ages.
“We were out in the middle of palm oil fields,” he explained. “There was no internet, there was no cellular connection. There wasn’t even a powerful enough computer we could upload the data to and do something with.”
The limitations of human operators and working with huge amounts of data soon convinced Jaiswal that he needed to innovate further. There was also the fear that someone would find a way to automate the drones.
If that happened, service providers like Garuda Robotics would be forced out of business.
Parting ways with Garuda Robotics, Jaiswal sought cofounders for a new plan: A networked fleet of drones that would not need constant human support.
Swarm-X, Jaiswal’s second drone company, was incorporated in 2015 and six prototypes were built in Shenzhen.
Within two months the company had a system to show investors. “I told them what my idea was for the future and they were really impressed,” said Jaiswal.
As of June, the company has gone through two rounds of fundraising.
A number of global corporations and organizations have shown an interest in the drone system. The most obvious attention for the company’s drones has come from security organizations.