Qualcomm Expands Drone Capabilities with “World’s First” 5G and AI-Enabled Drone Platform

August 22, 2021 by Stephanie Leonida

Qualcomm debuts its latest Flight RB5 5G Platform and customizable drone reference design for applications in agriculture, infrastructure, and more.

For Qualcomm Technologies, space is far from the final frontier, in fact, it is just the beginning. The multinational corporation is headquartered in San Diego, California, and is known for developing and providing software and services related to wireless and industrial technology. 

After Qualcomm’s Flight Platform was used to develop the NASA helicopter, Ingenuity, Qualcomm went on to develop the world’s first 5G and AI-enabled drone platform. This new platform will help foster high-performance, low-power, purpose-built enterprise, and industrial 5G drones.


From Smartphones to Space Flight

In 2012, Qualcomm’s IoT division began work on the adaptation of smartphone chips for drone use. This work contributed to the establishment of its Qualcomm Flight Platform. The IoT division’s key focus was to use Snapdragon to power smaller, lightweight drones with onboard sensors, AI, navigation, and cameras. 

To allow the terrestrial drones to go beyond the capabilities achievable by a smartphone, Qualcomm engineered a new flight platform around the Snapdragon processor. The new platform incorporated a real-time robotics operating system, a camera-based vision system, and algorithms for functions like obstacle avoidance, flight planning, and visual-inertial odometry. 

 Image taken of a 3D model of NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity. Image used courtesy of NASA 


NASA Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) gained interest in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon-powered drones in 2014. The lab bought a Qualcomm Flight platform and Snapdragon chip from Qualcomm. It began developing the hardware and software required for the viable flight of its automated helicopter, Ingenuity, on Mars. 

The NASA JPL team kept the Snapdragon chip for image processing, guidance processing, and storing flight data but then added a second chip. This chip was an automotive-grade microcontroller that could withstand high temperatures.

The collaboration between Qualcomm and JPL encourages future development in automated terrestrial and space technologies, whether this is for exploration, industrial or commercial use.


The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform

Looking back to Earth from space, Qualcomm has now developed its Flight RB5 5G Platform. The platform is hoped to push forward the development of commercial, enterprise, and industrial drones. 


The Qualcomm RB5 5G Platform Drone Reference Design. Image used courtesy of ModalAI 


In a recent news release, Senior Director of Business Development and General Manager of Autonomous Robotics, Drones and Intelligent Machines, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., Dev Singh, said, “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.”


More Details About the Platform

Highlights of the platform include end-to-end integration with unmanned aircraft systems traffic management (UTM) / service supplier (USS) and an enhanced visual analytics (EVA) hardware engine for advanced computer vision.

The platform also features Qualcomm Hexagon Tensor Accelerator (HTA), which supports sophisticated, on-device AI processing and provides mobile-optimized computer vision (CV) experiences. Vault-like security is provided for drone data with Qualcomm’s Secure Processing Unit (SPU).

In terms of connectivity, the new RB5 5G platform brings users cellular (5G, LTE, CBRS) and Wi-Fi 6. 5G provides users with both low-latency and high bandwidth data transfer for long-range communication and remote use. Wi-Fi 6 enables drone-to-drone/swarm support and communication between operators. 

Potential applications for Qualcomm’s new platform and reference design include delivery, public safety, agriculture mapping, and infrastructure/asset inspection.