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Domestic Pedigree Makes ModalAI’s Technology Attractive

AEROSPACE: Defense, Government Customers Prefer to Buy From UAS Specialist

SAN DIEGO – ModalAI Inc. has found a niche for itself.

A privately held maker of quadcopters, autopilots and related electronics, ModalAI dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s for its government customers, including the U.S. Department of Defense. And it is growing.

The business has 44 employees. While it does not disclose revenue, a company representative said ModalAI expects record revenue in 2024 with at least 60% annual sales growth.

Driving that growth are hundreds of active drone designs using the company’s VOXL 2 computer and autopilot as well as associated components from ModalAI.

Regulatory Rigor, Possible Changes Ahead

Quadcopters continue to prove their usefulness in gathering intelligence; taking inventory; surveying, engineering and construction; agriculture and even delivery. Military thinkers see the possibility of using swarms of drones in combat.

For hobbyists and businesses, the supply of quadcopters is plentiful, thanks in large part to Chinese imports. Congress, however, barred Chinese UAS (unmanned aircraft system) technology from the Pentagon supply chain in 2020. It was a provision of that year’s defense policy bill, the NDAA or National Defense Authorization Act.

There is a fear that drones from a foreign country could send sensitive data to a potential adversary, including data about government agencies or critical infrastructure.

A bill now making its way through Congress goes further: it would ban drones from a particular Chinese vendor, DJI, from entering the United States. The vendor has said such fears are baseless, that the bill is “xenophobic” and that it is committed to data security, according to an account in the South China Morning Post. According to The Hill, DJI controls around 70% of the global commercial drone market and about 80% of the U.S. market.

A Selling Point

For ModalAI, NDAA compliance is a big selling point.

“ModalAI is in a unique position as a founding member of the Blue UAS Framework, a program that was created to source vetted commercial unmanned aerial system technology for the DOD [Department of Defense] in response to the NDAA 2020 Section 848 Act,” said a company representative. “Two generations of ModalAI’s autonomous VOXL autopilot are on the list, and therefore approved to power drones for government use cases. Drone OEMs who are looking to build their own UAS to sell or partner with the government will use ModalAI’s VOXL 2 autopilot as the core of their drones.”

The company has been working for several years providing its market with drones and components built and assembled in the United States. The business assembles its printed circuit boards in Carlsbad and Santa Ana, with programming and testing in San Diego.

This spring, the business introduced new versions of its development drones, the Starling 2 and Starling 2 Max. Both are powered by the VOXL 2 computer and both are NDAA-compliant. These and all of Modal AI’s drones are hand built in San Diego.

Starling 2 has a base price of $2,949.99, an endurance of more than 40 minutes and is appropriate for indoor use. Starling 2 Max has a base price of $2,999.99, has an endurance of more than 55 minutes, is appropriate for outdoor use and can carry a payload of approximately 1 pound.

“At ModalAI, we enable the drone industry to create smaller, smarter and safer drones,” said company CEO Chad Sweet. “2024 is the year our mission became reality, with many of our customers successfully launching new products around our core technology.”

Making History and Making Work Easier

Sweet spent 20 years at Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) before co-founding ModalAI.

The company’s co-founders previously worked as leads in the Qualcomm R&D program that developed the predecessor to VOXL, the Snapdragon Flight. The Snapdragon Flight is at the heart of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, the first drone to fly on Mars. Ingenuity completed 72 flights during its historic mission.

One notable customer of ModalAI is Corvus Drones, a Dutch company that serves the agricultural market. Its drones monitor plant health in greenhouses.

Under the roof of a greenhouse, a drone must navigate without the help of GPS. The ModalAI powered aircraft uses onboard electronics to find its way around.

The Defense Department also has an interest in unmanned aircraft systems that can operate in GPS-denied environments.

ModalAI technology has also been part of drone swarm exercises conducted by DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D arm. (The initials stand for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.)

ModalAI Inc.
FOUNDED: 2018
CEO: Chad Sweet
HEADQUARTERS: Sorrento Valley
BUSINESS: Maker of electronics for UASes (unmanned aircraft systems) including development drones
CO-FOUNDERS: Chad Sweet, Donald Hutson & Eric Katzfey
EMPLOYEES: 44
WEBSITE: modalai.com
CONTACT: modalai.com/pages/contact-us
NOTABLE: ModalAI’s products are built and assembled in the United States, and comply with the NDAA 2020 Section 848 Act

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