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Qualcomm's Snapdragon Flight Promises Lighter, Simpler, More Powerful Flying Cameras

The easily customizable new platform is looking to provide a substantial boost to the drone market.

[Photo: Flickr user Ed Schipul]

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.

Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight

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."

Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight details

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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