To Mars and Beyond—All You Need To Know About Qualcomm’s 5G and AI-Enabled Drone Platform

Qualcomm says that the future of drone technology lives with AI and 5G technology.

Drone technology recently made it to the planet Mars attached to the Perseverance rover, in the form of the Ingenuity helicopter. With the Qualcomm Flight Platform, Ingenuity has completed numerous flights over the surface of Mars. And it is being used by engineers and scientists to better understand powered flight dynamics on the Red Planet. Since 2014, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Qualcomm have worked on developing Ingenuity and have now offered a proof of principle for the potential of powered aircraft in space.

The Ingenuity helicopter. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

The Ingenuity helicopter. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

This innovation was no small feat as it required a processor built to withstand the 3-to 22-minute delay of signals sent from Earth to Mars. With intense radiation exposure, fluctuating and freezing temperatures, and the inherent unpredictability of space, JPL needed significant computing power and autonomous operations to make a functional drone for Mars. JPL and Qualcomm’s collaboration on, and advancement of drone technology, will now help these vehicles expand space exploration and improve industries here on Earth. This includes Qualcomm Technologies’ recent drone platform with 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.

Commercial, industrial and enterprise drones will use the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform and the Qualcomm QRB5165 processor to bring 5G technologies to scale.

Modern Drones: 100 Years in the Making

When most people think of drones, they picture the sleek aircraft used to create beautiful images and capture panoramic videos. Drones are responsible for some of the most breathtaking footage seen in media, but drone technology is not a new advancement. The original development of unmanned aircraft began during World War I.

In 1918, Orville Wright and Charles F. Kettering worked on a secret project to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle. Under the direction of the two engineers, the United States invented the first “self-flying aerial torpedo” that became known as the “Kettering Bug.”

The United States’ Kettering Bug. (Image courtesy of the United States Air Force.)

The United States’ Kettering Bug. (Image courtesy of the United States Air Force.)

With the aircraft fitted with a 40-horsepower engine, engineers would calculate the wind speed, direction, and the amount of distance they wanted the unmanned plane to travel. These calculations helped them to determine the number of engine revolutions needed for the bug to reach its target. Not exactly a precise operation, but it was the foundation for the drone technology we now rely on for the military and other applications.

Since the early 20th-century, drone technology has expanded to impact nearly every industry. Drones are now used to assist with natural disaster recovery, to help law enforcement with surveillance and border control, to assist with remote military operations, and to improve video and photo capture for real estate, the film industry and more.

With the widespread adoption of drones over the past years, regulations continue to keep pace with the speed of innovation. As drones become more readily available and their hardware and software continues to improve, governments continue efforts to regulate their air space for these unmanned devices. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced guidelines that now require drones to use a digital license plate to provide additional security to air spaces.

5G-Enabled Drone Technology with Qualcomm

With a long history of innovation, drones continue to take advantage of cutting-edge technology and next-generation networks. Qualcomm believes that the next step in drone technology is here thanks to its 5G-enabled devices that are capable of advanced autonomous operations and integration with Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Dev Singh, Qualcomm’s head of Robotics, Drones, and Intelligent Machines, holding the RB5 development kit (Image courtesy of Qualcomm.)

Dev Singh, Qualcomm’s head of Robotics, Drones, and Intelligent Machines, holding the RB5 development kit (Image courtesy of Qualcomm.)

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform was designed with innovation in mind, combining several complex technologies into one system to support the constantly evolving applications of drone technology. Whether companies are looking to use drones in film, security or mapping, the platform will facilitate constant development in numerous industrial applications.

The platform allows for AI and machine learning to operate a fully autonomous drone with ultralow power usage. Using both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 networks, the platform enables flying capabilities beyond visual line of sight. This creates a safer and more reliable flight technology for all drone hardware. Meeting the rigorous standards of modern drone cybersecurity, the Qualcomm Secure Processing Unit provides data protection and advanced safety settings.

The RB5 program combines the 5th generation Qualcomm AI Engine with a new feature: the Hexagon Tensor Accelerator. With these specifications, the system can complete 15 trillion operations per second and can run both AI and deep learning at the network edge. RB5 also includes a dedicated hardware block for computer vision: Engine for Video Analytics (EVA). Without compromising on performance, EVA uses low latency for real-time image processing without heavy reliance on the GPU and CPU. This leaves more computing power for other critical AI operations needed by ultramodern drone technology. Plus, the Qualcomm Spectra 480 Image Signal Processor delivers 200-megapixel photos, 8K video recording and 4K HDR video capture.

The heterogeneous computing capabilities of the RB5 robotics program use the Octa Core Qualcomm Kryo 858 CPU, the Qualcomm Adreno 650 GPU, multiple digital signal processors (compute, audio and sensor) and Internet service providers (ISPs). Software support is also provided for Linux, Ubuntu and ROS. Overall, this creates a powerful and customizable system that can help companies realize the potential of 5G-enabled drones.

“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,” said Dev Singh, senior director at Qualcomm Technologies. “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 Partners with Global Telecommunications Companies

Global telecommunications companies currently use Qualcomm platforms in everything from wearables to drones. AT&T, Verizon, LG and more rely on Qualcomm platforms to deliver 5G and IoT to consumers.

Eric Ringer, cofounder and chief of staff at Skyward, a Verizon company, said, “The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform provides a robust hardware platform that can be certified for the Verizon 5G network, offering the ecosystem of drone developers a simple path to get connected. That means drones built with the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform can leverage the massive capacity of Verizon 5G Ultra-Wideband to navigate the National Airspace System in safer and more productive ways than ever before.”

With the adoption of the Qualcomm processor, many companies will be able to deliver 5G-enabled devices, including drones, to their customers.

Looking Toward the Skies

Every day, drones continue to push the boundaries of technological innovation. Future adoption of drone technology will likely transform everything about how we shop, travel and communicate in the future.

An example drone used for Prime Air deliveries. (Image courtesy of Amazon.)

An example drone used for Prime Air deliveries. (Image courtesy of Amazon.)

With rapidly evolving vision systems like LiDAR and AI-driven computer vision, drone technology may soon make automated urban air mobility a reality. Drones are considered electric vehicles, and companies and consumers alike are excited about the potential for unmanned drones to deliver a green solution to travel in the future.

Beyond the potential for commercial vehicles, drones may soon help deliver packages to your door. In 2013, Amazon announced that it was interested in using a drone-based delivery system for its packages called Prime Air. Although the system has only been used in limited test deliveries, Amazon is continuing to develop the technology to make this type of delivery a global reality.

As technology continues to advance, many companies are left waiting for governmental regulations to change to meet the needs of increased air travel. Hopefully, over the next decade, both technological advancements and regulation changes will help consumer drones improve all aspects of our everyday lives.