Aerial robotics: for some, this concept likely conjures up images of R2D2 and C3PO walking on tightropes and swinging from trapezes. But for Daniel Mellinger ‘07, aerial robotics is a technology with unlimited potential. Mellinger has built a career on the development of tiny quadrotor helicopters, or “drones.” These vehicles have applications ranging from consumer aerial photography to entertainment, and can even fly discretely into otherwise inaccessible or dangerous environments to capture photos and other data about scenarios ranging from natural disasters to poachers of endangered wildlife.
As an undergraduate at NC State, Mellinger – a native of High Point, N.C. – saw mechanical engineering as a major where he could apply his interests in physics and mathematics to solve real-world problems.
He partnered with his Park Faculty Mentor, Larry Silverberg, on a number of projects that allowed him to witness the tangible outcomes of his research.
“Dr. Silverberg was instrumental in shaping my career path, and we were able to work on some interesting research problems,” said Mellinger. “One of the projects involved using math and physics to analyze the basketball shot. We were trying to figure out the optimal shot trajectories from different locations on the court; for example, whether you should go for a bank shot or a ‘swish’ shot. I thought the project was awesome!”
With the assistance of Silverberg – who will serve as one of two Park Faculty Scholars for the incoming Park Class of 2020 – Mellinger landed an internship with Cary, N.C.-based Lord Corporation during the summers following his sophomore and junior years. There he helped develop algorithms for an active vibration control system for full-size helicopters. His project team used an electromechanical system to measure and then attempt to cancel out the vibrations from the helicopter rotor.
Mellinger admired the work being done at Lord and observed that many team members there, including his project advisor, Mark Jolly, held doctoral degrees. This inspired him to apply to Ph.D. programs in mechanical engineering. After exploring a number of options, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Penn seemed like a great fit for me,” Mellinger said. “Lots of interesting robotics projects were going on and it seemed like a very collegial atmosphere. I worked on a legged robot project and a modular robot project in my first year. About a year into my Ph.D. program we got some quadrotor helicopters in the lab; we didn’t call them ‘drones’ back then. I asked my advisor, Vijay Kumar, if I could work on that project. He agreed and I have been working with drones since that time.”
Eager to advance aerial robotics technology to solve engineering problems, Mellinger founded KMel Robotics with Alex Kushleyev, a friend and classmate at Penn. The KMel team developed the capability to use aerial vehicles for a live light show in France, a commercial with Lexus, and a flying robot band that performed live at a science festival in Washington, D.C., among other projects.
“It was very gratifying to work hard on something and see people appreciate the results,” Mellinger said. “Those demonstrations got people really excited about what we were building at KMel.”
The folks at San Diego, California-based Qualcomm, a global semiconductor company, were among those excited about the work KMel was doing. In February 2015, Qualcomm acquired KMel and has since been growing the research team in Philadelphia.
“Joining Qualcomm has been a great experience,” said Mellinger. “One of the biggest changes has been having the opportunity to work with a variety of technical teams within Qualcomm. Integrating world-class technology from Qualcomm with the work we had been doing at KMel has been very rewarding.”
Mellinger reflects fondly on his NC State experience, not just for the solid foundation of knowledge he acquired, but for the relationships he developed.
“The Park Scholarships program contributed significantly to my professional choices and opportunities,” he said. “It encouraged me to think critically about what I wanted to do in my career and then make a plan to make it happen. I was also strongly motivated by my peers in the Park program. Every Park Scholar is extremely talented and driven and this inspired me then and continues to inspire me.”
Mellinger will impart this inspiration to current Park Scholars, fellow alumni, and other members of the Park community in April 2016, when he returns to the NC State campus as a presenter at sPark: the first biannual Park Scholarships Symposium.