MADISON – Jim Willmore never talked much about his job at Qualcomm, the San Diego-based mobile communications chip maker where he worked for 21 years, most recently as senior director of engineering.
So, it was a total surprise for his mother, Betty Willmore, and sister Tracy Punsel in 2018 when they learned something incredible about the Madison native who earned an electrical and computer engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. Willmore’s name, along with those of his team members, was being inscribed on a small helicopter called Ingenuity being sent to Mars as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission.
“That’s all we knew about the project,” says Betty, “but we were very excited.”
That probe is scheduled to land in the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on Thursday, and Betty and Tracy say they’ll pop the cork on a bottle of champagne when it does. But it will be a bittersweet celebration: Willmore passed away unexpectedly at age 63 in October 2019, well before the mission carrying his name launched from Cape Canaveral in July 2020. In addition to his mom and sister, Willmore was also survived by his wife, Lori, son, Travis, and two grandchildren.
He likely never expected that his work at Qualcomm would go interplanetary. In fact, much of his work was decidedly terrestrial; one of the company’s major industries is producing chipsets for mobile devices. However, in the last decade it began moving into producing chips for automobiles as well – and those chips must be even more rugged than chips inside cell phones.
Willmore and his team worked to improve the life expectancy of the chips as well as their heat and cold tolerance.
“He helped transform Qualcomm into a major player in the automotive world in a very short time,” says Steve Sadler, who worked on Willmore’s team at Qualcomm and now leads it. “Everything we do is on the shoulders of what Jim built.”
Willmore’s expertise in improving environmental tolerances for chips is why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory came calling. Instead of building all of its technology from the ground up, JPL recently launched a program to leverage commercial, off-the-shelf technology in some of its newer projects.
For the 19-inch-tall, 4-pound Ingenuity copter, JPL decided to integrate the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 platform to control the craft. But before they sent it to the Red Planet, JPL engineers needed to know if the commercial product could stand up to the harsh condition on Mars, where nighttime temperatures can drop as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why they began consulting with Willmore.
“When the JPL came to us and said, ‘What happens when you subject these chips to cosmic radiation,’ Jim had the capability to make minor modifications to his tools and assess that,” says Justin Gagne, director of engineering at Qualcomm. “He would be able to expose the chips to higher and higher doses of radiation and show that at a certain point a subsystem failed and at what point the system stopped working entirely. This is the kind of detail JPL needed to assess the risk of using these applications in space.”
Ingenuity is considered a technical demonstration project, a mission that will assess whether it’s even possible to fly a drone helicopter in the Martian atmosphere, which is only about 1 percent as dense as Earth’s. Once it releases from the belly of the Perseverance rover, where it is docked, Ingenuity will charge its batteries using solar panels. Then, sometime in the spring of 2021, the copter will conduct a series of flights over 30 days, flying for up to 90 seconds at a time with a maximum altitude of 15 feet and a range of 980 feet. If the craft is able to fly for even one hop, it will be considered a successful learning experience.
By all accounts, Willmore relished being able to cooperate with JPL. To his family and friends, he’s remembered as endlessly curious, especially about all things engineering-related, as well as history.
Willmore’s enthusiasm about the Mars project was infectious and led many other Qualcomm employees to embrace the project as well. But that was not surprising. Those who knew him say he was the epitome of positivity and had a knack for inspiring his team and friends to take on big challenges.
“The joke was that if Jim saw one drop of water in a glass, he would say it was full,” says longtime friend and colleague Kaveh Kohani. “Opportunity was his favorite word. He liked to say, ‘When you fall down, the only place to go is up.’ He was absolutely the embodiment of that mentality.”
Willmore was also an avid athlete, competing in dozens of triathlons and marathons, including the Boston Marathon three times. He was well known for riding his bike or running everywhere he went. He would also return to Madison frequently, competing in the Ironman Triathlon several times and setting up recruiting events for Qualcomm at UW-Madison.
While finding out Willmore’s name was headed to Mars was extraordinary, Betty and Tracy learned something even more incredible about their son and brother after he passed: his impact on other people.
“I’ve never been hugged by so many people in my life than I was at his funeral,” says Betty. “People genuinely loved him. There were so many who told us how he had recruited them and mentored them and how inspiring he was. It was just wonderful.”