Qualcomm Boosts Drone Utility with 5G and AI-enabled Drone Platform

Article By : Nitin Dahad

New Qualcomm solution features heterogeneous, low-power computing and camera systems with AI, plus long-range connectivity such as 5G, and Wi-Fi 6.

Qualcomm Technologies has launched the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform, which it said will help accelerate and scale development of powerful autonomous drones for many industries and sectors as a result of its 5G connectivity and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.

Both commercial and consumer drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are expected to see significant growth over the next few years. But a key hurdle so far has been the marrying up of drone technology with the advancements made in AI and autonomy along with 5G and long-range Wi-Fi connectivity, according to Dev Singh, Qualcomm Technologies’ senior director for autonomous robotics, drones and intelligent machines.

This pairing of 5G and AI capabilities in Qualcomm’s new platform will boost the utility and usefulness of drones and help accelerate development of commercial, enterprise, and industrial drones across sectors which include film and entertainment, security and emergency response, delivery, defense, inspection, and mapping. It also opens up new possibilities for industries looking to adopt drone solutions and realize the benefits of the intelligent edge.

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Qualcomm said its new Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform solution is the world’s first 5G and AI-enabled drone platform, featuring heterogeneous, low-power computing and camera systems with artificial intelligence (AI), and long-range connectivity such as 5G, and Wi-Fi 6. Powered by the Qualcomm QRB5165 processor, the Flight RB5 5G platform enables advanced imaging capabilities and drone-to-drone communication. Its high-performance and heterogeneous computing at ultra-low power consumption provides power efficient inferencing at the edge for AI and machine learning (ML), enabling fully autonomous drones.

Qualcomm flight RB5 5G platform
The capabilities of the new Qualcomm drone platform which now pairs up 5G connectivity with AI-enabled features. (Source: Qualcomm Technologies)

The computational power for seven-camera concurrency enables drones to capture several shots simultaneously in a variety of high-quality formats. Additionally, its 5th generation Qualcomm AI engine handles complex tasks which include computer vision, perception, and autonomy. Advanced AI equips 4K and 8K drone cameras with electronic image stabilization (EIS), horizon leveling, and digital zoom for film-like image capturing capabilities, while computer vision brings multi-object detection and tracking, digital gimbal techniques, and depth cues from stereo vision for easy control of any shot.

Long-range connectivity is also a significant component. With 5G and Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, the platform enhances critical flying abilities beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) to support safer, more reliable flight. 5G and Wi-Fi 6 features enable low-latency connections with a UAV controller for precise movements and immediate first-person view (FPV) response time. Fast connectivity also allows for HDMI interfacing to an external display to see drone footage in real time.

Additionally, security is a vital role when it comes to connectivity. The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform is equipped with a Qualcomm secure processing unit to support modern drone demands for cybersecurity protections as a key enabler of data-protection and safety requirements.

Dev Singh commented, “We have continued to engage many leading drone companies, enabling 200+ global robotics and drone ecosystem members in addition to consistently driving and promoting worldwide drone standardization and transformative 5G capabilities in organizations such as 3GPP, GSMA, the Global UTM Alliance, the Aerial Connectivity Joint Initiative (ACJA) and ASTM. We are proud to continue our momentum of enabling the digital transformation of global industries by unveiling the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform, a solution that is purpose-built for drone development with enhanced autonomy and intelligence features, bringing premium connected flight capabilities to industrial, enterprise and commercial segments.”

Qualcomm Technologies is working with Verizon to complete network testing of the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform for the Verizon 5G network, and expects the platform, which is 5G mmWave capable, will be offered via the Verizon Thingspace marketplace.

The platform and reference design were designed and developed in conjunction with ModalAI, a spin-out of Qualcomm Technologies. ModalAI will distribute and support it through its lifecycle with open-source software and applications. Chad Sweet, CEO of ModalAI, said, “Autonomous flight on the 5G network is here now – extending the flight path of drones to increase the value of a broad set of inspection capabilities. Better yet, the platform is open to everyone. Together, ModalAI and Qualcomm Technologies are advancing the adoption and commercialization of drone technology.”

Qualcomm 5G Drone System Diagram ModalAI
The 5G drone platform reference design available through ModalAI. (Source: ModalAI)

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G drone reference design is available for pre-sale through ModalAI; it is priced at $3,999.99 without 5G modem or $4,499.99 with a 5G modem, with delivery expected in late Q3 2021. The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G development kit is expected to be available in Q4 of 2021.

Carrier and IoT ecosystem keen on 5G-enabled drones

Several players in the carrier and IoT ecosystem have voiced either validation or support of Qualcomm’s new solution. A common theme of that support is that 5G connectivity is going to be a big game changer for deployment and usefulness of drones. In its announcement, Qualcomm referenced a number of global carriers and IoT ecosystem players indicating support for the new drone platform. These include Asia Pacific Telecom, AT&T, China Unicom, Everguard.ai, FlightOps, Juganu, KT Corporation, LG Uplus, MITRE, Taiwan Mobile, TDK, Veea, Verizon Skyward and Zyter.

Kevin Hetrick, vice-president, access construction and engineering, AT&T, highlighted how drones are enhanced with 5G, commenting, “Many of the anticipated benefits of drones will be further accelerated and strengthened with 5G, including delivery, inspections, and search and rescue, which will require a highly secure and reliable connection.”

In the construction industry, Sandeep Pandya, chief executive officer, Everguard.ai, said, “Use of drones to capture imagery for construction site topographic mapping, construction progress tracking, security surveillance and equipment tracking in combination with IoT sensors that are deployed on construction sites are revolutionizing how construction projects are delivered. 5G enabled data from drones can be leveraged to unleash the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms yielding massive improvements in the safety, efficiency and productivity of construction projects.”

Edge computing specialist Veea elaborated on the impact of 5G on drones in various smart applications. Its chief executive officer, Allen Salmasi, said, “Many of the anticipated benefits of drones will be further accelerated and strengthened with 5G, including monitoring critical infrastructure, crowd management, and emergency response which includes detection, containment and extinguishing of wildfires, reporting on crop health, monitoring of livestock and irrigation systems at large acreage farms, and much more. The large majority of these use cases require a highly secure and reliable connection that can be more readily supported with 5G connections.” He added that the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform will help Veea innovate across its deployments of hybrid edge-cloud solutions such as at large farms, wildlife parks, stadiums, smart cities, large construction sites and similar projects.

This article was originally published on Embedded.

Nitin Dahad is a correspondent for EE Times, EE Times Europe and also Editor-in-Chief of embedded.com. With 35 years in the electronics industry, he’s had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He’s also worked with many of the big names—including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.


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