Qualcomm officials want to bring their company’s expertise in mobile chips to the burgeoning consumer drone market.
The company this week unveiled the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight, which brings together all the mobile functionality needed by the unmanned flying vehicles—not only the processing power, but also technologies for everything from navigation and 4K video to cameras and various sensors—onto a single 58mm-by-40mm board.
Qualcomm is the world’s top supplier of mobile processors for smartphones, and like other chip makers has spent years putting the various components needed for such devices—including the CPU, graphics technology and digital signal processor (DSP)—onto a single system-on-a-chip (SoC). Company officials saw the opportunity to do the same thing for drones, which currently use a collection of off-the-shelf components from multiple vendors to perform such functions as wireless connectivity, GPS and navigation, according to Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm.
Using these multiple components adds more bulk to the drones and drives up the cost of the machines.
“The Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight brings together the technologies that have defined the mobile industry onto a single board, enabling OEMs to build drones that are lighter, smaller, easy to use and affordable with long battery life and superior functionalities,” Talluri said in a statement.
The Snapdragon Flight module is based on the company’s ARM-based Snapdragon 801 processor, which is found in many smartphones sold around the world. The chip includes a 2.26GHz quad-core Krait CPU from Qualcomm, the company’s Adreno 330 GPU and Hexagon DSP, which drives the real-time flight control capabilities. There also is a dedicated video encode engine and dual image-signal processors (ISPs), which help with such functionality as obstacle avoidance and video stabilization, according to company officials.
The module comes with support for 4K high-resolution camera capabilities, image enhancement and video processing features, as well as simultaneous 720p encoding, they said. Dual-band 2×2 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity also is included, as is global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology for location positioning.
The module also offers Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology for fast battery charging between video and picture sessions.
Bringing all these capabilities onto a single module will enable manufacturers to design and build consumer drones that are smaller, more efficient and less expensive than current machines, according to Qualcomm officials.
The interest in drones in both the consumer and commercial markets has skyrocketed over the past several years. In the consumer space, 4K video is helping fuel that interest, according to Talluri.
“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, adding that Qualcomm “is already a leader in bringing 4K video capture to consumers having over 500 device designs powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon processors with 4K UltraHD video capability, allied with the highly integrated SoC, so it’s natural for us to support the same technologies in the consumer drone space.”
Qualcomm Takes Aim at the Consumer Drone Market
In the commercial market, much of the attention has been on top-tier companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which are all interested in using drones to deliver products. In March, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave Amazon permission to begin testing its drone package-delivery system. In addition, this summer, officials with Nokia Networks 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.
However, interest from businesses beyond these high-profile examples has spiked. According to a database pulled together by the tech news site The Verge, at the beginning of the year, the FAA had granted special exemptions to only about a dozen companies to fly drones. During the first half of the year, the regulatory agency handed out more than 900 exemptions to companies aiming to use them for a range of jobs, from inspections of cooling towers and wind turbines to agriculture, land surveying and security services.
Tech vendors are taking notice. Rival chip maker Intel—which has featured drones using its technology during recent conferences—announced in August that it is investing more than $60 million into Yuneec, a China-based drone manufacturer. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said at the time that the company believes “in a smart and connected world, and one of the best ways to bring that smart and connected world to everyone and everywhere has been drones.”
(As an aside, Qualcomm officials also announced that Yuneec is one of the first companies to adopt the Snapdragon Flight, with plans to launch a drone based on the platform next year. Snapdragon Flight is available now to certain manufacturers, with the expectation that drones powered by the module will be on the market in the first half of 2016.)
Other vendors, like Sony, also are embracing the drone market. Sony has partnered with Japanese firm ZMP to create a new drone company called Aerosense and last month showed off videos of a drone that reportedly can travel at 106 mph.
While there are benefits to drones for both businesses and consumers, there also are safety concerns.
A recent FAA report found that airplane pilots this year have had almost 700 near-misses with drones that were flying higher than they’re allowed.