A compact new integrated electronics package will be the brains for the next generation of advanced smart drones.
Semiconductor giant Qualcomm
“Qualcomm has 200-plus drone customers and if you’re coming across a drone or robot – it’s likely powered by Qualcomm’s robotics and drone technology,” says Dev Singh, General Manager of Robotics, Drones and Intelligent Machines at Qualcomm.
Their latest release announced this week is the Flight RB5 5G Platform. This is another credit-card-sized device which packs all the technology needed for high-end drone operations into a single unit. As the name indicates, it has 5G connectivity – their launch slogan is ‘5G Takes Flight’ – which represents a powerful new way of communicating with drones over existing networks. But perhaps more significantly, the platform has features enabling autonomous operations, which may largely remove the need for the drone to communicate at all during a mission.
“With high computing and ultra-low power consumption and advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO), the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G drone platform and reference design supports longer flight time and runs more applications simultaneously,” says Singh.
The platform’s built-in capabilities include computer vision providing depth estimation and automated obstacle avoidance using multiple cameras for 360-degree coverage.
Visual inertial odometry loosely means working out how fast you are going and where you are by looking at objects on the ground. While GPS is good for most purposes, drones that need to operate where GPS is unreliable – in urban environments where there are many tall buildings, indoors or even underground – need a backup. Having it built in gives developers an easy way of navigating without any additional work or new hardware.
Qualcomm has their vision fixed squarely on a huge emerging market. They quote 10 million consumer drones shipped in 2020, expected to reach 21 million by 2025, with the commercial drone market growing from a million to 5 million in the same period.
Everyone is talking about delivery drones – Qualcomm has already teamed up with Uber Eats to work on food delivery drones – but other sectors like agriculture and infrastructure inspection may prove more important in the medium term. Tasks like inspecting power lines and substations, or daily flights over fields to check on crop condition and will require large numbers of small, smart drones with the sort of autonomous vision capabilities that Qualcomm aim to provide.
The drone revolution is only just starting, and with smart enough hardware and software driving it, the only limits are the imaginations of developers. Cooperative drones that work together to sniff out gas leaks, agile drones that can out-race human pilots, combat swarms to find and attack opponents, police drones that can reach the site of any incident on one minute, drones trained to watch out for sharks, even smart drone that can fly through a warehouse and take inventory: these are all things that already exist. The new offering promises even more.
“The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform brings cutting-edge capabilities to the drone industry by condensing multiple complex technologies into one tightly integrated drone system,” says Singh.
This type of technology will make the next generation of drones even faster, smarter, and more affordable, with both better communications and more autonomy. The only question is which industries it will disrupt first.