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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  • It's about time and expected that big money would come into the electronics development of consumer UAVs once the market existence has been proven; typical of non-innovating big companies; it's more cost effective to let the little guys duke it out and develop the initial market, and then come in with deep pockets to squash them (aka IBM and personal computers in the early 1980's.

    This "platform" looks more like a front end processor to a flight controller (aka PixHawk, Crius, etc.) The Snapdragon 801 is not a microcontroller. It doesn't have real-time PWM input capture or output. The configuration with this device looks similar to the 3DR Solo; i.e., a front end processor doing non-real time processing and sending flight commands to the flight controller (same config as the Solo with it's 1.2ghz controller that sends flight commands [via MavLink] to its PixHawk 2 controller]).  A kludge, but people will buy it if works acceptably.

      Note that it takes a considerable amount of development time to create software to reliably do low level flight control. Qualcomm will have to develop their OWN software for the flight controller from scratch or else use open source code (i.e., ArduCopter et al). More than likely this "platform" will output commands to the low level flight controller.

    Happy flying, and don't count the small manufacturers (people who do the real engineering) of flight controllers out just yet!

  • Qualcomm is an investor in 3DR. Now you know why ;-

    I doubt Qualcomm invested in 3DR so that they could put open source code one their Snapdragons. One presumes a Solo 2 or something from 3DR is being developed with this technology. Fun times.

  • Developer

    First Customer Yuneec, who just secured $60mil from Intel. Wow. 3DR are the second customer?! not that's a question that will be answered. :-)

  • I am assuming it will be stabilized digitally on board so it's reduced to 1080. Just a guess though.
  • What does this mean for Pixhawk, and the other 'small brand' flight controllers, now that a large electronics manufacturer is going to make flight controllers? (and if one does it and makes any money at all, we'll be seeing HTC and Samsung and Apple flight controllers in no time). The beginning of the end for the small guys who pioneered the field?

  • Yuneec (manufacturing) + kmel (ip) + horizon (distribution) + 3dr (framework/drone code) + Qualcomm ventures.

    Confirms my thoughts... The package looks nice to bring the state of the art to the next level.

    Then again, looking at my connex unit here, you really want < 45ms latency...
  • correct me if I'm wrong but...
    "the world’s smallest flying 4K cameras, capable of 1080p video at 60 frames per second"

    That isn't 4K, thats HD.

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