Overhead Opportunity

Qualcomm announces its first 5G-ready drone platform

Building on the press coverage of NASA’s Mars autonomous drone, Ingenuity, this week Qualcomm unveiled its Flight RB5 5G Platform, claiming it’s the first drone platform and reference design to offer both 5G and artificial intelligence capabilities.

Qualcomm has long held a pole position in the wireless industry. One way it has managed to do so is by regularly launching reference platforms, which can do a lot of the technical heavy lifting for device-makers, allowing them to focus on integration and customization. With its Flight RB5 5G Platform, Qualcomm is looking to do just that, by enabling easier and quicker hardware development.

The US chipmaker is no stranger to the drone market. It has been active in the development of standards for drones, working with standards bodies such as 3GPP, GSMA, the Global UTM Association and the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity. Qualcomm’s original Flight Platform was launched in 2015, and its technology was used by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to build the Ingenuity helicopter.

Qualcomm’s new platform is powered by the company’s QRB5165 processor, Kryo 585 CPU and Adreno 650 GPU. The platform supports drones with seven cameras in use simultaneously, both for capturing video and helping to avoid collisions with other objects in the sky. It can handle power-efficient inferencing at the network edge for artificial intelligence and machine learning, for fully autonomous drones. It connects over 5G networks — with support for millimetre-wave 5G — and also works with Wi-Fi 6, enabling drones to fly beyond line of sight.

Packing several complex technologies into one tightly integrated drone system, the reference design should support new and evolving applications in sectors including film and entertainment, security and emergency response, delivery, defence, inspection and mapping. Qualcomm also expects the platform to help realize opportunities posed by “the intelligent edge”, thanks to its artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, boosted by the company’s Hexagon Tensor Accelerator.

Drones have already become serious tools in many industries (see, for example, Flight Plan and Wing Take-Off), with companies such as Amazon, FedEx, Google, UPS and Verizon all making investments to build out drone ecosystems. With the addition of 5G connectivity, these flying vehicles are set to be used for a wider range of applications, including oil and gas exploration, wind farms, entertainment, public safety, agriculture and inspection.

Qualcomm is working with Verizon to complete testing of its platform for Verizon’s 5G network, and expects Flight RB5 5G to be offered through the carrier’s ThingSpace marketplace. A development kit is set to be released by the end of 2021.