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Houston-based Aatonomy is flying with drones, but its ambitions are higher

November 30, 2018

Wilson Pulling and Yang Hu had an idea that seemed revolutionary: Create software that would easily give any robotic device autonomous capabilities, without necessarily changing the software or hardware that was already on it.

But there was just one problem. This initial version of the company the pair called Aatonomy couldn’t attract investors. It was too broad, Pulling said. He and Hu had to narrow their focus, so they settled on something with an immediate cool factor: Drones.

“That was the first market people wanted to give us money for,” Pulling said. “We are doing things on $100 drones that you used to only be able to find on $1,000 drones. But we don’t consider ourselves a drone company at all.”

Pulling is Aatonomy’s CEO; Hu is CTO. The company was born at Cornell University, where the pair met, and spun off with a $40,000 equity investment from the university. The two moved to San Francisco, which seemed like a logical choice for a technology startup.

But in June, Aatonomy left the Bay Area and moved to Houston, another decision driven largely by economics, Pulling said. For what Aatonomy would have paid for three temporary desks at a San Francisco co-working facility, it now has an 800-square-foot office in Midtown Houston.

“We needed room to be able to test our drones inside,” Pulling said. “We wouldn’t have been able to get that in San Francisco.”

Aatonomy’s technology brings new features to lower-priced drones that are typically found on more expensive ones. For example, high-end drones can follow the individual controlling the device; orbit around a specific point of interest or individual; or lock on to a person to take selfie stills or video.

These advanced features require a Global Positioning System, or GPS, module to be onboard, something usually missing from low-cost consumer drones. But Pulling said the key is to put their code into the smartphone app that controls the drone. The GPS built into the smartphone supplies the missing component.

Currently, Aatonomy’s software is available on a $120 drone being sold in Canada by a company called LiteHawk. Pulling said he is in talks with a U.S. drone manufacturer and expects to see an Aatonomy-powered product in this country next year.

Pulling said he and his partner don’t want to try to write the best algorithm, or design the best hardware, because that’s an advantage that only lasts a while.

“Those guys in China, they can copy your hardware in just a few months,” he said. “You can have a breakthrough algorithm, but it’s overtaken by something else in 18 months.”

Aatonomy’s approach is to provide a business-to-business product that allows the companies who use it to manage these shifts in technology more easily. Working in the consumer drone market serves as a kind of proof-of-concept.

Colin Snow, founder of Skylogic Research and a drone industry analyst, said he is not aware of any other company taking Aatonomy’s approach. But he’s not sure how well the company would fare in the commercial drone space, where more expensive drones already have this capabilities and software development kits make it relatively easy for developers to add new features.

“It’s a very competitive landscape in the commercial space, with DJI having a 75 percent market share, and all those features are already in their drones,” Snow said.

But Pulling and Hu have their eyes on more distant horizon than just the drone business. Pulling said the company wants to return to its original vision.

“We want to be the company in the marketplace that makes it easy to add any kind of functionality to any kind of robot,” Pulling said. They eventually hope to target cleaning robots like Roombas, security cameras and industrial applications.

Although the decision to leave San Francisco has taken Aatonomy out of the critical mass of tech talent in the Silicon Valley area, Pulling says headquartering in Houston provides distinct advantages beyond just lower costs.

“There are cheaper cities than Houston, that’s not in itself a reason to move to Houston,” Pulling said. “It’s low cost despite being the fourth biggest city in the country.”

That size, he said, means there’s a talent pool here even though it’s dispersed in different industries, such as energy, medicine and aerospace.

“Salaries there are out of control, and everyone is trying to be part of the next big thing, so they hop from place to place,” Pulling said. “You want people to take ownership of a project, but there they are on a roller coaster.

“This is a place of industry, resolve and action. BS doesn’t fly in Houston. And there’s a lot of BS in Silicon Valley.”

dwight.silverman@chron.com

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