At Qualcomm, the company in September unveiled its next-gen development platform, Snapdragon Flight, which is designed specifically for the growing drone market. PCMag recently visited Qualcomm’s San Diego campus for an inside look at Flight with Hugo Swart, senior director of product management at Qualcomm Atheros.
Swart’s responsibilities include business development for a wide range of Snapdragon-powered Internet of Things products, such as robotics, smart appliances, gaming boxes, and drones. He worked at Lucent Technologies and Telecom Italia before Qualcomm snapped up the Brazilian native in 2003 to help the chip maker expand its reach into Latin America.
With the Snapdragon Flight platform, Qualcomm condensed what would normally require several separate circuit boards (communication, video processing, GPS receiver, camera, flight controller, etc.) into just one.
“The chip itself is the same as a Snapdragon 801,” Swart explained. “Then we added, on a small board, things that are needed in a drone, like GPS for reliable location, 2×2 Wi-Fi, and key functionality such as a 4K camera and additional cameras for computer vision.
“Snapdragon already had great camera support…so it was a good start on which to build the Snapdragon Flight platform,” he continued. “With the same chip as in a mobile we can have 4K video encode for local storage, 720p encode for first person view (FPV), advanced image processing, and flight control with computer vision”
During a demo, Donald Hutson, senior support staff engineer, donned safety goggles and went behind the mesh screen that protects lab occupants from errant drones veering off their assigned flight path. He powered up a drone and talked us through the tech specs as the UAV moved into position.
“This demo drone has an approximate wingspan of 8 inches and weighs less than half a pound. As it flies, it will transcode the First Person View (FPV) live video stream from the optic flow cameras, in real time, from 4K to 720p,” Hutson said, pointing at a monitor displaying the drone’s eye view.
Hutson gave the command to elevate by tapping on a mobile device screen; the drone rose to 5 feet and hovered in place, sounding very much like a horde of angry wasps. “And now here’s the clever bit,” he added, before grabbing a large industrial leaf blower and blasting the hell out of the drone.
“We’re indoors, so of course there’s no GPS,” Swart pointed out, as the drone swayed and then moved back into position. “And yet,” he added, “it’s using its internal sensors and the optic flow cameras, so it knows it’s been blown off course, and can right itself back to the correct location.”
“Being able to handle gusts of winds and come back to the position it was in takes serious processing power,” agreed Hutson.
What type of future does Qualcomm see for Snapdragon Flight? “Basically, we’re jumpstarting the drone market,” claimed Swart. “Our goal is to enable our OEM customers, who are going to buy the Snapdragon Flight chips from us and use our software, like the Snapdragon Navigator, to build their own drones quicker than they could do on their own software solution.”
So what are the commercial applications of drones, apart from espionage and other covert activities? Naturally, Qualcomm envisions more than spycraft.
“I like to call the drone the next-generation selfie-stick,” said Swart. “You just throw it up in the air and then the drone itself can see who to take pictures of, use the best angles and so on to get great shots. Application No. 2 is the next-generation action camera, moving on from helmet or body-mounted cameras to drones that move alongside you, capturing amazing footage from biking, canoeing, and extreme sports.”
Snapdragon Flight is already available for OEMs, and should be powering the first generation of drones based on the platform in the first quarter of 2016. Swart could only confirm that Qualcomm is looking at adding cellular functionality, because mobile operators are already requesting it, and improving the machine vision capability.
“We’re putting two additional cameras on the front to assist with navigation in detecting objects,” he said. “For example, if I’m running and the drone is flying alongside me, it can build a 3D model on the fly, using machine vision, to avoid obstacles autonomously, without me having to manage it.”
As we walked out of the Qualcomm lab, something turned its head and caught our eye. It was an intriguing robotic dragon head affixed to a trestle table. The head used its sensors and camera-backed eyes to scan the room. On a nearby monitor, squares appeared on faces it captured, which gives a big clue as to what the project might be about. Hutson could only say that the dragon is part of a new R&D program.
For now, Qualcomm is focusing on drones. Tomorrow, the Snapdragon chip might well be embedded inside a few other robotic powered devices.