Raffaello D’Andrea: Delivering on the Power of Invention
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” – Thomas A. Edison
One thing is certain about Raffaello D’Andrea: He has a great imagination. And what he has accomplished with “a pile of junk” throughout the years is pretty incredible.
Raff’s work with Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics), along with that of fellow co-founders Mick Mountz and Peter Wurman, provided the mobile robots that have transformed the process of distribution and order fulfillment and turned the retail industry on its head. That immense achievement was the reason for the trio’s recent induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2020 (watch the video about the 2020 inductees here).
Yet it doesn’t take much digging to see that Raff’s work at Kiva is just the tip of the iceberg for this consummate inventor. On the heels of Kiva’s success, Raff founded Verity, the Swiss-based provider of the world’s only fully autonomous indoor drone systems for inventory management in the warehouse, and co-founded index and research company ROBO Global. Looking at those achievements alone, it would be easy to peg Raff as an entrepreneur like many others, and yet his true passion goes far beyond building businesses for their commercial promise alone.
For Raff, true excitement comes in the form of experiencing the world around him, and then creating things that transform how we interact with our environment. That’s been the case ever since he was a child (a fact that makes it quite miraculous that he survived his early years at all!). By his own account, he studied water pressure by jumping into a swimming pool—with bricks attached to his legs and a garden hose in his mouth. He studied the laws of inductance by combining batteries, transformers, and his own mouth as a ‘poor-man’s voltmeter’—learning a painful lesson in the process. He created hydrogen gas by electrolysis—by flooding his basement with chlorine gas. And in a precursor to his later work in drone technologies, he studied aerodynamics by jumping from a rooftop using a lawn umbrella as a parachute—an experiment that proved umbrellas to be very poor stabilizers, despite the theory of a rather daring 12-year-old scientist.
Since then, Raff has evolved into a true modern renaissance man. In addition to his business acumen, he is part academic (he is a Professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich), part scientist (his research has redefined the nature and use of autonomous systems and drone technologies, and he was elected to the US National Academy of Engineering in 2020), and part artist (his new media works have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and are part of the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada and France’s FRAC Centre).
Today, he is most excited about the future of drones. Verity’s initial commercial success came in the area of live events, where autonomous drones were put to the test in an environment where failure is not an option. “Applying this technology in real situations with real people was a great incubator for any number of uses for drones,” he says. “Working with roadies for Drake and Céline Dion and working with the carpenters on Broadway who control the effects for Cirque de Soleil, we learned how to combine a simple user interface with advanced automation to enable true autonomy in a wide variety of situations.”
Fast-forward to 2021, and Verity’s drone systems are now hard at work in the warehouse, enabling big-box retailers, third-party logistics providers (3PLs), and manufacturers across Europe and the US to automate the process of inventory tracking with absolutely no human interaction. According to Raff, this application is just the tip of the iceberg. “The potential for autonomous indoor drones is immense. Extremely small and lightweight, these tiny workhorses are capable of charging, taking off, and landing on their own—and accomplishing all sorts of tasks 24/7 without the involvement of a single human being.
The biggest challenge Raff sees at the moment is achieving widespread adoption of autonomous drone systems. “Unleashing the potential of any new technology requires a level of fearlessness to engage with systems that have never been seen before.” It’s a challenge he takes to heart, and one that he and his partners at Kiva Systems proved can transform businesses—and even entire industries. “Amazon now has over 500,000 robots working non-stop in its warehouses. Achieving that success demanded an extremely robust system that has absolute reliability. It’s a level of excellence that consistently sets industry leaders apart from their competitors.”
The Verity system takes that idea to the air, applying the same focus on total reliability to autonomous drone systems. With Verity’s solution now being adopted by some of the world’s largest retailers and 3PLs, Raff is well on his way to another impressive triumph.
A large part of that success has been delivering drones that can safely and reliably fly through the air around humans, whether they are audience members watching a show or co-workers on the warehouse floor. Ensuring that capability was the catalyst for Verity’s Failsafe technology, a patented solution for quadcopters that effectively guards against propulsion system failure—the most common cause of system-error crashes. Using Failsafe, instead of spinning out of control and crashing to the ground, drones use sophisticated on-board algorithms to automatically stabilize during a failure and stay in the air. Quadcopters are now the most popular type of drone, which makes this type of software-only safety upgrade particularly attractive to companies like DJI, the leader in the space with more than 75% of this fast-growing market. Verity’s code is commercially available, and Raff sees widespread adoption as the key to making drones much safer to fly over people and to expand the range of commercial drone applications.
“The potential for commercial drones is incredible,” he says. Drones are already being used for photography, precision agriculture, pipeline inspection, and firefighting. Firefighters in Paris used drones to monitor the tragic Notre-Dame Cathedral fire to find the best positions for their brigade of fire hoses and to collect real-time data that was essential for fighting the fire. Next up: package delivery, including ‘last mile’ package delivery for Amazon and other retailers, as well as delivering blood samples from one hospital site to another. “This is already a multi-billion-dollar market, and the sky is literally the limit.”
When Raff talks about the future of robotics and drone technologies, his perspective is rooted in every area of his work—as academic, scientist, artist, and entrepreneur. “Despite what we’d like to believe, the future is impossible to predict.” But the power of invention is something we can all believe in—no jumping from the rooftops required.