Qualcomm Partners With AT&T, Verizon on Drones, IoT

Qualcomm and AT&T plan to test drones on cellular networks, while the chip maker and Verizon are setting sights on IoT devices connected to 4G LTE networks.

drone tests

Qualcomm is partnering with top-tier carriers AT&T and Verizon as it looks to gain traction in the emerging drone and internet of things markets.

On the first day of the CTIA Super Mobility 2016 show Sept. 6 in Las Vegas, officials with the mobile chip maker said Qualcomm and AT&T plan to run tests to determine how well drones operate on commercial 4G LTE networks, which could help accelerate the use of drones in the corporate world.

At the same time, Qualcomm will integrate Verizon's ThingSpace internet of things (IoT) platform-as-a-service into one of its LTE modems. The idea is to make it more economical to connect many of the billions of devices that make up the IoT via LTE networks and to make it simpler to build, deploy and manage such devices.

The moves are the latest by Qualcomm as it looks to expand beyond mobile devices and push into such growth areas as drones, IoT, virtual reality and autonomous cars with its high-performance, low-power ARM-based system-on-a-chip (SoC) technologies. The company is competing with the likes of Intel, Nvidia, NXP and other chip makers as they make plays in the various new markets.

With AT&T, Qualcomm will test how well drones operate on commercial 4G LTE and upcoming networks including 5G to see how they can be used in the future, looking at everything from coverage and signal strength to mobility, according to officials.

The research is important given current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that include not allowing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be flown outside the operator's line of sight, unless specifically permitted. At the same time, top web-based vendors including Amazon and Google see drones as a new avenue for delivering products, and other organizations want to use drones for such jobs as inspections of pipelines, utility towers and other remote operations and to explore distant areas.

The goal of the tests will be to see what needs to be done to make it easier for drone operators to run their devices beyond their line of sight. Cellular networks offer advantages over WiFi and other wireless networks, including ubiquitous coverage, high-speed mobile support, greater reliability and high quality of service (QoS), according to officials with both companies.

"Many of the anticipated benefits of drones, including delivery, inspections and search and rescue, will require a highly secure and reliable connection," Chris Penrose, senior vice president of IoT solutions with AT&T, said in a statement. "With a focus on both regulatory and commercial needs, LTE connectivity has the potential to deliver optimal flight plans, transmit flight clearances, track drone location and adjust flight routes in near real-time. Solving for the connectivity challenges of complex flight operations is an essential first step to enabling how drones will work in the future."

The tests will be based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon Flight drone platform, which the company introduced in September 2015. The platform houses all the mobile functionality needed by the unmanned flying vehicles—from sensor processing power and navigation features to 4K video cameras and various sensors—onto a single 58mm-by-40mm development board. Company officials said the platform already is being used in some drones currently on the market.

The trials, which are expected to begin later this month, will run at Qualcomm's UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Flight Center on the company's campus in San Diego, California. The FAA in April approved Qualcomm's request to be able to fly drones at 200 feet or lower on the campus. The site offers what company officials call "real world" conditions, which include commercial, residential and uninhabited areas and FAA controlled airspace. Drones also can be tested using commercial cellular networks without impacting AT&T's normal network operations, they said.