Smartphones in the sky: Qualcomm launches first 5G and AI platform targeting commercial drones

A full scale model of the experimental Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which will be carried under the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, is displayed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Feb 16, 2021, in Pasadena, California. — AFP/Getty Images/TNS

SAN DIEGO: Fresh off being in the limelight for its processors powering NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, Qualcomm has rolled out its next-generation technologies for drones on Earth – aiming to drive adoption beyond hobbyists and into commercial industries.

The San Diego wireless technology company announced its Flight RB5 5G Platform this week. It is the first drone system to include 5G connectivity and artificial intelligence technology, which eventually could help enable autonomous, beyond-line-of-sight flights for such things as crop inspection, search and rescue, powerline/wind turbine monitoring, package delivery, mapping and so on.

In addition to the processing/connectivity platform, Qualcomm also launched its first-ever reference design kit for drone developers – essentially an aircraft body, rotors and other necessities to help companies develop drones faster and easier.

“This will help accelerate the development of commercial and enterprise drones in this field and really open up innovation possibilities for industries looking to adopt high performance, low power, long-range, autonomous and intelligent drones,” said Dev Singh, senior director and general manager of Qualcomm’s robotics and drone businesses.

While best known for its smartphone processors, Qualcomm has been working for years to expand its mobile technologies into new industries such as autonomous cars, always connected laptops and smart cities infrastructure.

Drones are part of that effort, and Qualcomm got a publicity boost last year from NASA's mission to Mars.

The company’s off-the-shelve drone processors – circa 2015 – power the Ingenuity helicopter developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The initial goal for Ingenuity was five short missions to prove that drones can fly in the thin atmosphere and extreme temperatures found on the Red Planet.

Ingenuity did better than that. To date, it has completed 12 flights, travelling a total distance of about one mile. It’s no longer considered a technology demonstration by NASA, said Singh. It’s now viewed as an aerial scout for its companion Perseverance rover.

Consumer drone sales are expected to increase from 10 million units last year to 21 million by 2025, while commercial drones are forecast to grow from one million units to 5 million.

While consumer drones dominate, Singh believes the commercial applications for drones have significant growth potential.

“If you look at something like asset inspection, that’s a US$15bil (RM63.57bil) business by itself,” said Singh.

On the computing front, Qualcomm’s Flight RB5 5G Platform delivers low-power processing, computer vision, obstacle avoidance, support for seven on-board cameras, image stabilisation, 4K resolution video, on-board cybersecurity and long-range, peer-to-peer WiFi links between the controller and aircraft of up to 10 kilometers.

Qualcomm is working with several wireless operators to support the 5G piece of its drone program, including Verizon, AT&T, China Unicom, Korea Telecom and Taiwan Mobile.

The Flight RB5 5G drone reference design kit is available for pre-order now through ModalAI, which is based in San Diego. Pricing was not available, but the kits are expected to begin shipping in the fourth quarter of this year. – The San Diego Union-Tribune/Tribune News Service

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