3D Robotics

Qualcomm announces Snapdragon-based drone platform

This is a very powerful new compute platform for drones, optimized for computer vision. It ships with P4X/Dronecode flight code. (Qualcomm is an investor in 3DR. Now you know why ;-)

Official press release here. Article from Fast Company:

Qualcomm, the world’s leading developer of chips for smartphones, today unveiled a platform for consumer drones that it says can make the flying vehicles lighter and less complex while supporting the camera functionality of the most sophisticated offerings on the market today.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight (which gets its name from Qualcomm’s premium tier Snapdragon 801 processor) is the reference platform developed over the last six months by the San Diego-based chip giant’s research and development lab, and features support for a 4K camera for video, two cameras for depth, and a fourth camera for indoor stabilization, Fast Company has learned.

In short, Qualcomm says it has created the basis for the world’s smallest flying 4K cameras, capable of 1080p video at 60 frames per second, drones that are in their entirety lighter than the gimbals on many existing drones with 4K cameras.

The first known customer is Yuneec, a Chinese rival to drone industry giant DJI.

Qualcomm hopes the Snapdragon Flight will be adopted by both existing drone manufacturers and newcomers to the burgeoning space. Given that a January report from Radiant Insights suggested the global commercial drone market is expected to expand from $609 million in 2014 to $4.8 billion by 2021, Qualcomm is betting its new platform could bring it a substantial amount of business in the coming years.

That seems likely, said one drone industry expert.

"The integration of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors in drones will have the same effect that it’s had on mobile devices," said Colin Snow, founder and CEO of Drone Analyst. "Drones will get even sharper image capture and post-processing, improved performance, and better communications. Combining chips will not only improve imaging and imaging options, but will also improve precious battery power as overall weight of the drone drops."

Added Snow, "4G LTE connectivity will benefit drones since they can use that network to transfer images and eventually use it for communicating to a yet-to-be-developed unmanned traffic management system."

All that said, it is notable that the platform isn’t launching with DJI or other industry heavyweights like 3D Robotics, as customers. For Snapdragon Flight to provide a substantial financial windfall to Qualcomm, it will need to be adopted by companies that sell significant numbers of drones.

3D Robotics's IRISPhoto: 3D Robotics

"The interest level has been great from everybody including the big companies and small companies," said Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management in Qualcomm’s Internet of Things business unit. "We are hoping that all the companies making drones will be interested in this….The goal of our launching the platform is to make it easy for everybody not to have to develop from scratch. It’s a good starting point and then [manufacturers] can differentiate."

Those that do adopt the new platform, Talluri said, should be able to start selling drones based on it by the first half of 2016, and possibly sooner.

Snapdragon Flight will support Sony IMX camera sensors for video, and Omnivision OV7251 sensors for computer vision. All the processing of the data coming in from those cameras is done on the board, said Talluri.

The board has built-in 802.11n and Bluetooth LE communications as well, and will in the "near future" offer support for 4G LTE dongles, a company spokesperson said. All told, the board is 58 millimeters by 40 millimeters and weighs less than 13 grams.

"The vast majority of a drone’s power consumption goes to the motors," Chad Sweet, the director of engineering in Qualcomm Research’s R&D Lab, told Fast Company,"and the size of the motors and the drone are dictated by the payload weight. So when you can shrink the payload size and weight, you can effectively make a smaller drone. And smaller drones are safer and much more consumer friendly."

Further, Sweet said, the Qualcomm approach should significantly simplify the electronics inside drones incorporating Snapdragon Flight. "Many of the popular [drone] platforms have between 10 and 12 [printed circuit boards]," he said. "On a platform such as ours, you would have two PCBs without a mechanical gimbal, and possibly a third PCB with a mechanical gimbal. So it drastically reduces the complexity of the system."

Qualcomm’s drone work came out of research it’s done on using its smartphone chips in robotics. The company has determined that the sensors it embeds on boards in mobile devices are perfect for integrating with one of today’s hottest consumer products.

"The most interesting area of robotics that’s kind of taken off from the market perspective," Sweet said, "are the drones….The main use case is really flying cameras. The camera’s one of the most important features of a smartphone, so as part of Snapdragon, we’ve put a huge effort into developing a high-quality image-processing pipeline."

The new platforms also offers a wider scope for customization. Drone manufacturers can control flights on the application side and determine what kind of processing they want, Sweet said.

"Having this much processing power really opens up the differentiation substantially," he said. "They now have the compute capability to do different things. On many contemporary products, there’s not much compute capability."

Those that do have decent on-board processing power, he said, include 3D Robotics’ Solo, and DJI’s Matrice.

Lastly, the Snapdragon platform also offers support for very-low-latency first-person view that can be done in parallel while recording 4K video, Sweet said. The goal in Qualcomm’s R&D lab has been lag of less than 150 milliseconds, what he called the "video game threshold."

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  • Developer

    For those looking to get Ardupilot running on the Qualcomm Snapdragon board, we've got these two wiki pages (Overview, Build instructions) and a DIYDrones discussion to consolidate people trying to get the board ....

  • Quallcoms booth was SICK @ C.E.S.2015

  • 3702093388?profile=original

  • 3702093449?profile=original

  • Intel had recently announced $60 mil investment into Yuneec so they may start to move away from Snapdragon board and use Intel Atom based instead. Popcorn time...

  • 3D Robotics

    In case people haven't been following this, Yuneec was grandfathered in as a customer, since they were using the software from KMEL Robotics, which Qualcomm bought last year.  That's what runs in the Yuneec's Q500 copter. I'm not aware of KMEL having had any other customers before they were bought.  This Qualcomm board will run a choice of at least two flight code stacks: PX4/Dronecode (open source) and KMEL (closed source). 

  • It's not clear to me, does this thing have an STM32 onboard running the flight code, and only higher level code runs on the Snapdragon, or do they have flight code running in Linux?

    If the latter, are they using some other chip for generating the outputs?

  • JB 10 hours ago ?
    Spec of Snapdragon 801 System On Cheap  from link below.
    That SOC is used as base for The Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight devboard

  • Developer

    @Ravi My point is that your post is talking about closed and open, as though what we have now on the HW front is open and the future looks closed. I'm pointing out that its not a clean black and white environment we are in already. Board layouts and designs are actually based on reference designs supplied by the manufacturer. They are permissive, and not restrictive like a OSHW Share-Alike license. That's not closed, the companies want you you to use their processors in your application i.e. the snapdragons/IMX6/Broadcom/TI-OMAP etc. Sure we don't have a OSHW design for Snapdragon processor yet ie. a restrictive share-alike licensed design that is being shared with the community here, but somebody can create one based on the less restrictive manufacturer reference design.

    The other point is that these more complex processor boards are more expensive and complex to build than Pixhawk/ATMEL microcontroller systems. And manufacturers are not interested in sharing these designs as they impact there business bottom line. Do you see the OSHW version of the Solo IMX6 board? The only part that is OSHW is the PH2, as it's derivative of the PH1 that has the Share-Alike restrictive license for it.

    That said, It doesn't look anybody is really being 100% honest with OSHW stuff (expect PH2) as there are missing design files from lots of producers.

    3DR has grown up from a company that was seeded from the Maker Movement into something bigger, it's left behind a community of people that like to make stuff and tinker, but its moved into bigger circles. There still work to be done in software, but HW designs from now on are looking to be created and kept behind closed doors. 

    From a Software perspective we still have the two Autopilots ArduPilot - The free software GPLv3 licensed code and PX4 Flight Stack - The Open Source BSD License Code (which is less restrictive about sharing changes to the code)

    Its interesting to watch the developments, I don't think you should leave (put down your google search) and hang around, It will be interesting to see how Linux based FC change the landscape. (Maybe somebody is working on a Linux FC that is complete OSHW (not like the BBB/RPi versions we currently have!)


  • thanx andy, you understood exactly what I felt and I meant. the fun is all about open source. few people fly pixhawk and they all love it. many many people fly DJI but you do not see their heart in it.

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