By Sean Rushton
Locomation’s Director of Communications
Locomation’s story is the story of the American Dream. Our five founders came to the United States from across the world – for the golden chance to be educated at the highest levels and work at the world’s top university for robotics and artificial intelligence.
They put down roots, becoming legal residents and citizens of the United States of America. They started families and became pioneers in the burgeoning field of autonomous vehicle technology. In 2018, while watching the AV industry focus on mostly the robotaxi applications of Level 4 and 5 solo autonomy, they saw a doorway for an industry-changing opportunity. With insurmountable ambition, dedication, and the will to win, they did what so many immigrants before them have done – they founded a company. A company that gives people meaningful jobs to use autonomous technology to help solve some of the major challenges in the freight transportation industry, with the goal of becoming yet another great American success story.
The five co-founders met at Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) where they worked on advanced robotics and artificial intelligence projects. Combined, they made priceless contributions to generations of Mars Rovers for NASA, and autonomous vehicle systems for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Federal Highway Administration, and mining and agricultural companies worldwide.
Dr. Çetin Meriçli (pronounced CHET-in Mer-ITCH-ly) was born in Istanbul, Turkey. From an early age he loved computers and robots, and as a young man became fascinated by artificial intelligence. As a teenager he was writing computer games and making the computer intelligently play against humans. From there on for him, “It was always about learning about deep things – philosophical questions about what it means to know something, how people think and learn, and how can you replicate this with robots and machines.”
During his graduate studies in Computer Engineering in Turkey, he started competing (and dominating) in RoboCup, an annual international robotics competition for the best of the elite.
He and his brother Tekin won a world championship in the Standard Platform League which helped Çetin earn his scholarship to CMU as a visiting researcher, where he then joined as a Postdoctoral Fellow, and eventually an NREC faculty. There, he worked on highly complex autonomous projects for organizations like DARPA, Caterpillar, John Deere, Federal Highway Administration, and the Defense Department’s Test Resource Management Center. With success as his reward, he left in 2018 to co-found Locomation and lead it as CEO.
Çetin is currently studying history and government as part of his near-complete process of becoming a United States citizen. When not absorbed in AVs, he is an amateur chef, an avid vintage computer enthusiast, lover of American pop music, and a master at karaoke.
Not to be out-done, Co-founder and CTO Dr. Tekin Meriçli (TECH-in Mer-ITCH-ly) earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Computer Engineering at Boğaziçi University in Turkey, his Masters of Computer Science degree from the University of Texas, Austin, and his BS degree from the Department of Computer Engineering at Marmara University, Turkey.
As a student in Turkey, Tekin racked up multiple victories at the RoboCup competition and brought home a trophy from the MAGIC Unmanned Ground Vehicle competition, and while at UT-Austin, he competed in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, brilliantly showcasing how AVs operate on mock urban courses.
Tekin came to Carnegie Mellon University as a visiting scholar first, and continued as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Robotics Institute and the Human-Computer Interaction Institute before moving to NREC, where he was a senior autonomy engineer and special faculty for years. He worked closely with DARPA and the Department of Defense, building various self-driving vehicle projects for on- and off-road applications, including military convoys, as well as leading and contributing to various operator assist and autonomy projects, including building a co-pilot system for a Sikorsky helicopter.
Tekin became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 2018. He loves traditional Thanksgiving food and carves a turkey like a surgeon. Can you get more American than that?
Alonzo (“Al”) Kelly is a co-founder and Locomation’s Chief Scientist, born in St. John’s and raised all over Canada.
Professor Kelly has been highly active in robotics since the 1980s, engaged in numerous roles including academic, researcher, commercial software engineer, entrepreneur, author and consultant. He holds degrees in aerospace engineering, computer science and robotics.
He left Canada to earn a Ph.D. in the newly formed robotics department at CMU. While there, he accepted a role as a member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and he has been in collaboration on the Mars rovers from the Pathfinder mission to the present. He also worked on the robot arm of the space shuttle, specifically on the simulation system used to train the astronauts.
Prof. Kelly has made countless fundamental contributions to robotics, including the inverse dynamics approach to local planning that is now standard on autonomous vehicles everywhere. This algorithm was the basis for CMU winning the DARPA Urban Challenge that placed autonomous vehicles in the mainstream media for the first time ever.
Kelly is the author of the comprehensive engineering textbook Mobile Robots: Mathematics Models and Methods, as well as 200 other technical articles ranging from trade journals to academic papers, to intellectual property disclosures and patents. He gained his U.S. citizenship in 2005.
Co-founder Michael George, Locomation’s VP of Engineering, was born in Queensland, Australia. He holds a Bachelor’s of Aerospace Engineering from the University of Sydney, and a Master of Engineering in Robotics from the Australian Center for Field Robotics.
He began his career in aerospace then shifted to robotics during graduate school. He built expertise that was highly useful on a DARPA program that was being co-managed at CMU by Al Kelly. As someone who was always drawn to the center of the action, Michael grabbed the opportunity to move to the U.S. for this work.
In 2008, he joined NREC and rose to become the lead engineer on multiple government and industry programs. He is an expert in state estimation – the calculation of a system’s parameters even with limited and uncertain measurements – and some of his work with Dr. Kelly has successfully been commercialized. Immediately prior to founding Locomation, Michael led NREC’s engineering efforts on the U.S. Army Autonomous Ground Resupply contract. He was honored to receive U.S. citizenship in 2016.
Venkataramanan Rajagopalan (Venkat) is a co-founder and the VP of Autonomy at Locomation. He was born in New Delhi, India and received his B.E. in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Madras in 1999 before coming to the U.S. to earn his M.S. in Computer Engineering from the University of Denver in 2002.
Venkat has a Master’s in Robotics from CMU and is currently finalizing his Ph.D. degree in Robotics at CMU’s Robotics Institute. His research is in collaboration with NASA’s JPL. There, he is pushing the limits of mobility and navigation of future planetary rovers. His deep expertise includes planning, control and software systems architecture of autonomous vehicles operating at their performance limits in terms of high speed and maximum maneuverability.
Venkat has over 20 years of professional experience in the research and development of technologies for robotic systems. He worked at Lockheed Martin and received medals for Individual Contribution and Excellence in Ethics. Prior to the pursuit of his doctoral degree, he was a senior robotics engineer at NREC, where he worked on testing Unmanned Autonomy Systems for the Test Resource Management Center at the Department of Defense. He became a U.S. citizen in 2014.
Locomation’s founders came together at NREC to work under Al Kelly. After decades of study and experience, they had a dream – to deliver AV technology with a unique approach.
As Americans, we are largely a nation of immigrants. We all have different stories and different histories that have enriched this nation’s rich tapestry. Together, with the ideal of the American Dream, we at Locomation are excited to contribute our story to this tapestry, and our work to helping this optimistic nation ensure that its brightest days are still ahead.
In July 2018, in the tradition of previous great American immigrant entrepreneurs, they started our company, and it is on track to be the first AV trucking technology company to deploy in safe, profitable commercial operations at scale across the United States. Their story is just beginning.