Qualcomm readies 5G and AI drone platform

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Qualcomm is unveiling its platform that enables aerial drones to tap both 5G and AI technologies.

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform will help accelerate development for commercial, enterprise, and industrial drones. The hope is to enable enterprises to capture data from drone cameras and process that data at the edge of the network.

The platform is powered by Qualcomm QRB5165 processor, and it builds upon Qualcomm’s latest internet of things (IoT) offerings. The aim is to enable a new generation of low-power 5G drones that can capture a lot of data via cameras and transmit that data via 5G to an operator or sent it over longer distances over a network. The platform has AI as well so that it can determine what data is most valuable and send that so it can reduce the amount of raw traffic on a network.

The aim is to use 5G to revolutionize the robotics and drone industry, particularly by enabling drone data to be used in private 5G networks for industrial applications such as factories.

A wide range of applications

Above: Dev Singh shows off a Qualcomm Flight 4B5 drone.

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform condenses multiple complex technologies into one tightly integrated drone system to support evolving applications and new use cases in sectors including film and entertainment, security and emergency response, delivery, defense, inspection, and mapping, said Dev Singh, general manager of autonomous robots, drones, and intelligent machines at Qualcomm, in an interview with VentureBeat.

“Qualcomm is taking its current leadership in 5G and AI to scale the next generation of drones and IoT,” said Singh. “With 5G and AI, it is going to help accelerate development of commercial enterprise industrial drones and really open up innovative possibilities for industries to looking to adopt high performance, low power, small form factor, long-range communication, autonomous and intelligent drones.”

Qualcomm is already engaged with more than 200 robotics and drone ecosystem companies, and it’s also driving worldwide drone standardization technologies as well, Singh said.

The platform has eight CPUs on it, a graphics processing unit (GPU), a neural processing engine, and cameras that can handle 8K resolution and 4K capture at 120 frames per second. It has seven cameras that give it situational awareness and enable it to avoid collisions.

“It’s a very intelligent drone,” he said.

He said the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform is purpose-built for drone development with enhanced autonomy and intelligence features, bringing premium connected flight capabilities to industrial, enterprise and commercial segments.

Qualcomm launched its first drone flight platform in 2015, and it was used in the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab mission to Mars, powering the Ingenuity drone helicopter. That helicopter has made 10 flights and imaged over a mile of the surface of Mars. The second-generation drone design debuted in 2018, and it powers the Uber Eats meal delivery drones.

Singh believes that companies can partition AI tasks, providing power-efficient AI on the device to ensure privacy, reliability, low latency, and efficient use of network bandwidth. The cloud can also handle heavy-duty AI training and inferencing.

“We’re seeing a significant interest because the drone use cases are now going beyond hobby and commercial to the enterprise,” Singh said. “The shipments of devices are going five-fold fron a million in 2021 to three million to five million in 2025.”

Seven cameras for collision avoidance

Above: Applications for Qualcomm’s drone platform.

The platform supports a drone with seven cameras, both for capturing video data as well as avoiding collisions with objects in the sky. It can handle power-efficient inferencing at the edge for AI and machine learning for fully autonomous drones. It connects via 5G or Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, giving drones the ability to fly beyond line-of-sight. The drone uses a Qualcomm Secure Processing Unit for cybersecurity protection.

Qualcomm is working with Verizon to complete network testing of the Qualcomm Flight RB5 Platform for the Verizon 5G network, and expects the platform, which is 5G millimeter-wave capable, will be offered via the Verizon Thingspace Marketplace.

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G drone reference design (a blueprint for drone manufacturers) is available for pre-sale now through ModalAI.

The drones have been cost reduced over the years, and now the components fit on a credit-card size board.

Singh believes it will be useful in a wide variety of applications, including oil and gas exploration, wind farms, entertainment, deliveries, public safety, agriculture, and inspection. While drone deliveries might seem far fetched, there are situations where it could matter, such as delivering drugs to patients who need them right away, or delivery paths that circumvent traffic jams.

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G development kit is expected to be available in the fourth quarter. Qualcomm has supporting comments for the tech from AT&T, Asia Pacific Telecom, China Unicom,, Korea Telecom, LG Uplus, Mitre-Engenuity, Taiwan Mobile, InvenSense, Skyward, and others.

“We think the power of 5G and AI put together is unlocking all this potential,” Singh said.


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