New Qualcomm Tech Could Lead to the Ultimate Drone
IN RECENT YEARS, a whole lot of high-end Android phones have been built around Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 series SoCs (system on a chip). There’s a reason why it’s called a system on a chip: It’s a tiny piece of silicon with a multi-core processor, a graphics-processing engine for everything from games to 4K video to photos, components that help you squeeze more out of your battery, GPS and wireless radio, display drivers for high-res screens, and all the brains and guts of what a modern phone can do.
Now, Qualcomm is trying to become the default central nervous system for the next generation of drones, too. The Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight puts a Snapdragon 801 SoC with a quad-core 2.26GHz processor, dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, support for real-time flight control systems, a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver, 4K video processing, and support for speedy recharging onto a little board that’s the size of a business card.
According to Qualcomm, the first drone to use the Snapdragon Flight reference platform will be a UAV made by Yuneec slated to launch in 2016. But if the board and the drone market both meet expectations, a steady stream of UAVs built around the Flight platform will be right around the corner.
“We first concepted Snapdragon Flight more than a year ago. It grew out of conversations and requests we were having with customers, as well as a need we were seeing in the market,” Raj Talluri, Qualcomm’s SVP of product management, told WIRED via email. Though he would not say which companies besides Yuneec Qualcomm is working with, he added that the company is “in talks with a number of OEMs looking at this space.”
The idea behind the Snapdragon Flight reference platform is that drone manufacturers can use it to build cheaper, lighter, smaller, and more energy-efficient UAVs with advanced capabilities. Along with the video and navigation tools on board, Qualcomm says the board’s processing mettle is strong enough to support automated obstacle-avoidance features.
“The board, including the Snapdragon 801, is combined with advanced drone software and development tools, making Snapdragon Flight more like a reference design than anything else,” Talluri writes. “Drone or robotic developers and OEMs using Snapdragon Flight can create more innovative designs with advanced features in faster time-to-market and with reduced development costs. This is achieved because Snapdragon Flight integrates virtually all the key elements developers need, and they’re already optimized to work together.”
In theory, these UAVs would fill a big gap in the market right now. In today’s world, anyone thinking about buying a drone is generally faced with a decision between an expensive, powerful UAV, and a cheap toy. They can buy a heavy, serious drone, with high-end imaging and stabilization, a lot of flight options, and a price tag of $700 or more. Those are the DJI Phantoms, 3DRobotics Solos, and Yuneec Typhoons of the world.
In the other corner, there are smaller, cheaper, and more toy-like UAVs with lower-end cameras, no gimbal-based stabilization mounts, and less-impressive features. But those are generally safer, lighter, and easier to manage: Things like Parrot’s AR.Drone and MiniDrones. No matter the price or size, today’s drones usually get around 20 minutes of flight time per charge—and they normally have recharging times of at least an hour.
With those limitations in mind, Qualcomm hopes its little board can be used to create the holy grail of drones en masse: Something with the big-time processing power and imaging capabilities of a pricey drone, the smaller and ultimately safer size of a toy-like drone, and better charging speeds and battery life than either of them.
The timing could be perfect for Qualcomm to enter the market, as drone sales are gaining serious momentum. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that the worldwide drone market will reach $1 billion in three years, about a tenfold increase from the $105 million in projected revenue this year. But of course, there are growing pains: People are doing dangerous things with drones, and the FAA is still wrestling with regulation questions.
“Action cameras are moving into the mainstream, and drones are a natural extension of that with the market poised for major growth this year and beyond. We believe Snapdragon Flight will help drive it to the next level,” Talluri says.