High Point native's quadrotors star in new Lexus commercial

Nov. 24, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

Lexus may be the sponsor of a new commercial airing on television these days, but the luxury automobile is definitely not the commercial’s star.
That distinction belongs to a dazzling swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles — they’re essentially small, computer-controlled drones called quadrotors — which were developed by High Point native Daniel Mellinger and the company he co-founded, KMel Robotics.
“We designed these quadrotors in an engineering lab, but in this commercial we’re taking them out of the lab and into the real world,” says Mellinger, a 2003 graduate of T. Wingate Andrews High School who now lives in Philadelphia.
“To actually make it happen took a lot of engineering effort, but it was really exciting to see all our work portrayed in such a beautiful way. The guys who did the filming are very talented, and they made the work we had done look amazing.”
In the one-minute commercial, swarms of the unique quadrotors — which are
about the size of a man’s hand — come to life at night, playfully exploring various locations such as a supermarket, a hotel lobby and a museum of anthropology.
“Our goal was to create characters and make them appear childlike and playful as they’re exploring these new environments,” Mellinger says. “The plot is basically that the humans have gone home for the day, and these little tiny robots come out to play — they’re exploring and having fun in these different environments.”
The cute-looking quadrotors — so named for the four rotors, or propellers, that enable them to fly — appear to have minds of their own as they hover, soar, swirl and practically dance in formation down the supermarket aisle and around a samurai at the anthropology museum. But in fact, the quadrotors’ complex flight patterns — nearly every move they make, no matter how subtle — have been precisely programmed by Mellinger and his KMel Robotics partner, Alex Kushleyev.
“We build these vehicles and design circuit boards for them,” Mellinger explains. “The vehicle itself has four rotors, but what makes it smart are the electronics and the software that are on board. We design that custom for the vehicles. Each vehicle has microprocessors and sensors that allow it to know things about its state in the world — for example, its acceleration or its angular velocity (how fast it’s spinning). The vehicle can fly because of the sensors it has, and it spins the rotors at the rate we want them to spin. It has to keep itself upright and fly where we tell it to fly.”
For the commercial, technology is incorporated that allows each quadrotor to update data on its own location and intended flight path more than 100 times per second — a necessity in order for their carefully choreographed movements to be achieved.
To fully understand exactly how all that happens, you’d probably need a
doctorate — that’s what the 28-year-old Mellinger has from the University
of Pennsylvania, where he and Kushleyev became friends and worked on robotics projects together. Mellinger is a mechanical engineer, and Kushleyev is an electrical engineer.
The two young men did not invent quadrotors, but they’ve been further developing the technology and pushing it forward, according to Mellinger. While at Penn, for example, they began posting videos on YouTube demonstrating the amazing things their quadrotors could do; the videos generated quite a buzz, with one of them getting more than 7 million views. In one surreal video, the quadrotors have actually been programmed to fly through the air and play musical instruments — a drum, keyboard and guitar — to the tune of “The James Bond Theme.”
The videos caught the eye of a company in London, which contracted with KMel Robotics to stage a highly synchronized light show featuring a troupe of quadrotors. The show was performed last summer in Cannes, France, before an audience of about 3,000, Mellinger says.
Then came the Lexus commercial, which — with its widespread exposure — could certainly lead to more entertainment-type projects.
Mellinger also sees practical applications for the quadrotors. For example, if first responders arriving at the scene of an emergency wanted to get a widespread view of the entire emergency scene, they could send up a small camera mounted on a quadrotor that could give them an aerial view of what’s going on, he says.
In the meantime, Mellinger and Kushleyev are continuing to improve the technology.
“Right now, we’re just focused on building up the base technology,” he says. “We’re working on all the different aspects to make them perform really well.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579

Want to watch?

To view the new Lexus “Amazing In Motion” commercial, which features a swarm of quadrotors developed by former High Pointer Daniel Mellinger’s company, KMel Robotics, click here