Qualcomm Gets OK to Fly Drones on San Diego Campus

The site is a few miles away from a Marine air base, which means the chip maker needed a special certificate from federal regulators to test UAVs.

Qualcomm engineers have received more leeway to test drone technology on the company's campus in San Diego, Calif., after getting the OK from federal regulators to operate the unnamed vehicles there.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a certificate of authorization (COA) to Qualcomm enabling the company to fly drones at 200 feet or lower on the campus, which is where Qualcomm is doing much of its research and development in the emerging market. The COA was necessary because Qualcomm's San Diego facilities are within a few miles of the Marine Corps' Air Station Miramar military base, which includes an air traffic control tower. That puts the Qualcomm campus in highly restricted Class B airspace, according to Qualcomm officials.

"The authorization allows the research team to evaluate new technologies in a real-world urban environment—under tight controls at all times," Paul Guckian, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm, and Conor Campbell, the company's public relations manager, wrote in a post on the Qualcomm blog.

Qualcomm and Intel are among the chip makers most aggressively pursuing opportunities in the drone space, which is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years in both the consumer and commercial markets. In a recent report on the general state of aviation in the United States, the FAA predicted that by 2020, about 4.3 million unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be sold to consumers, and another 2.7 million will be sold to businesses for commercial use.

ABI Research analysts say that more than 90 million consumer UAVs will ship worldwide in 2025, up from 4.9 million in 2014. Revenues by 2020 will hit $4.6 billion.

For companies like Qualcomm and Intel, the drone space represents another market for systems that can be powered by their silicon and related products. Qualcomm in September unveiled Snapdragon Flight, a small (58mm-by-40mm) board that pulls together the various mobile functionality needed by drones, including the processing power (Snapdragon 801) and technologies needed for everything from navigation and 4K video to cameras and various sensors.

Intel is putting its own chips to work in the space, and its RealSense 3D camera technology has a tool to help drones navigate their environments. In addition, Intel earlier this year bought startup Ascending Technologies, whose sense-and-avoid algorithms are being combined with the RealSense technology. Intel also last year invested $60 million in China-based drone manufacturer Yuneec.

In their blog post, Guckian and Campbell said the Qualcomm engineers in their testing are focusing on such aspects as autonomous flying and 4G and 5G communications, both of which "help enhance safety in drone deployments—protecting people and property on the ground, as well as other aircrafts in the airspace."

More specifically, the researchers are working on algorithms for remote operation and autonomous flight control that run on Snapdragon Flight. The algorithms "enable a wide variety of critical operations for safety, including autonomous navigation, obstacle avoidance, waypoint to waypoint navigation, landing zone determination, stabilized hovering, and sensor-aided dead reckoning, among others," they wrote.

The focus on communications between the drones to operators on the ground is particularly important to commercial use of UAVs. "Lost link" situations can cause an array of safety problems, particularly when drones are operating beyond visual line of sight, or BVLOS. Cellular connectivity can help protect against lost link scenarios, Guckian and Campbell wrote.

"The combination of highly reliable communications capabilities with other key features we are developing and refining, such as computer vision, sensor processing and continuously updated geofencing, are all necessary to enable safe BVLOS operations," they wrote.