Intel Buys Drone Software Maker Ascending

The acquisition of the German startup is the latest move by Intel in its efforts in the drone market, where it will face such competitors as Qualcomm.

Intel drones

Intel is moving deeper into the growing drone industry, buying German startup Ascending Technologies and its auto-pilot software.

Intel officials announced the deal Jan. 4 but released few details about it. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich is expected to talk more about it when he takes the stage at CES 2016 in Las Vegas Jan. 5. No financial details were released.

The chip maker's acquisition follows its $60 million investment in August 2015 in China-based drone manufacturer Yuneec. At the time, Krzanich said in a statement that Intel has "drones on our roadmap that will truly change the world and revolutionize the drone industry." Intel reportedly also has made investments in drone companies PrecisionHawk and Airware.

It also is the latest step in a budding competition with rival chip maker Qualcomm in the drone space. Qualcomm in September introduced Snapdragon Flight, a small board that brings together all the mobile functionality needed by the unmanned flying vehicles, from the processing power to technologies needed for everything from navigation and 4K video to cameras and various sensors.

At CES, Qualcomm officials are expected to make drones a central part of the company's message, and on Jan. 3 put a video on the company's YouTube page to highlight some of the features that will be coming with the Flight development board, which is 58mm by 40mm in size and includes a Snapdragon 801 system-on-a-chip (SoC).

The interest in drones in both the consumer and commercial markets has increased over the past several years. A growing number of businesses—such as Facebook, Google and Amazon—are eyeing drones as a way of delivering goods and services, and others see drones as enabling them to more efficiently and cost-effectively reach places that are difficult to access, such as remote oil pipelines. Nokia Networks last summer announced a partnership with Du, a telecommunications provider in the Middle East, to create a proof-of-concept to show that drones can be used to help telcos test and analyze their networks.

In the consumer space, technologies such as 4K video are making drones attractive products, Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm, said in a statement when the company unveiled Snapdragon Flight.

"Drones are enabling a broad range of applications, such as aerial photography, the ultimate selfie accessory and sports filming, so the ability to shoot in 4K is a must-have feature," he said.

For companies like Intel and Qualcomm, drones represent a new market opportunity for their silicon and other technologies. Intel for decades made the bulk of its money from the PC market. However, the space is contracting, and under Krzanich, the company has pushed to find other growth areas—such as the data center, Internet of things (IoT) and wearable devices—to help reduce its reliance on the PC market.

"Drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are quickly emerging as an important computing platform of the future," Josh Walden, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's New Technology Group, wrote in a post on the company blog. "With practical applications ranging from disaster response, to infrastructure inspection, to delivery of goods, UAVs offer an incredible opportunity for innovation across a multitude of industries. As a result, Intel is positioning itself at the forefront of this opportunity to increasingly integrate the computing, communications, sensor and cloud technology required to make drones smarter and more connected."

Intel already has partnerships with Ascending Technologies, combining the startup's sense-and-avoid algorithms with its own RealSense 3D camera technology, which includes depth-sensing capabilities, all of which help drones avoid colliding with obstacles.

At previous events, such as the Intel Developer Forum and last year's CES, Krzanich has shown off the RealSense technology on stage with the help of drones, including some from Ascending Technologies.

Intel reportedly plans to offer contracts to Ascending Technologies' 75 employees.