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24 August 2021

5G center stage in Qualcomm’s AI-centric drone platform

Qualcomm’s third drone platform is the first to incorporate 5G as well as support for ML (machine learning) inferencing, reducing power consumption and bringing closer full remote high performance flying beyond visual non-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operation. It also underlines the opportunities commercial drone flying holds for mobile operators, with Verizon a launch partner for this new Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G platform on its public 5G network in the US.

The aim is for the platform, which can operate in millimeter wave spectrum, to be available via Verizon’s Thingspace Marketplace. The reference design is on pre-sale release now, with the development kit slated for Q4 and the first commercial products based on the platform scheduled for release mid-2022.

According to Qualcomm, the Flight RB5 5G platform currently supports Release 16 5G, and will be upgradeable to Release 17 and 18 as the specifications crystallize. The platform also offers low power 5G and long range WiFi 6 connectivity, based on Qualcomm’s QRB5165 processor, making that an option in some scenarios. This could be applicable on campuses with ubiquitous WiFi 6 but patchy or absent 5G.

Qualcomm has identified infrastructure inspections, agricultural monitoring, public safety, and drone delivery for logistics supply, as initial targets for the platform, as well as intriguingly entertainment. The latter will exploit 8K30 and 4K120 cameras incorporated in the platform with electronic image stabilization, digital zoom, horizon leveling, and multi-camera concurrency, aiming to enable capture from the air of footage not possible before.

8K30 refers to video capture at 30 frames per second at 8K resolution, that is 4320 x768 pixels per frame. 4K120 specifies the lower 4K resolution at 2160 x 3840 pixels but the higher frame rate of 120 per second, conducive for capture of high speed relative movement. This is being driven by demand for frame accurate capture of high speed actions as in sports events, but in this case could be valuable if the drone itself is moving fast. The electronic image stabilization is important in this context, given footage may be captured from erratically moving drones in some cases.

The advanced video capture capabilities may have greater application for autonomous remote drone operation, since they underpin highly accurate manoeuvring in real time beyond human control. The high frame rate capture would be valuable here since it would reduce the distance moved by a drone between successive frames. Even so, images would have to be processed with the help of ML to ensure accurate continuous tracking, estimating for movement between frame captures, as well as for the inevitable slight latency.

It is indeed on the latency front where 5G excels. The reduction from 50ms latency for local operation with 4G/LTE to 1ms with 5G could be game-changing, although there is little evidence of the latter having been achieved fully for 5G yet.

There are already examples of trials involving drones, often for evaluation of safe air corridors where they would coexist with existing commercial air traffic. Almost inevitably, mobile operators are involved, since these often require ubiquitous access that only public networks can furnish.

In one example, Vodafone and Ericsson in November 2020 completed successful testing of sky corridors for 5G drones at the former’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany. Like other such projects the main purpose was to demonstrate safety and logistical aspects of air corridor operation, as well as less demanding use cases.

The two companies used data from the 5G network to produce coverage maps, which enabled the drones to be confined to areas with a good signal in the air.  They also collated anonymized mobile user information so the drone could avoid heavily crowded areas on the ground. The latter exploited Vodafone’s ‘Network Exposure Layer’, which makes network data easy to utilize, while keeping it as secure as possible.

Vodafone then conducted a separate trial in Spain to fly a lightweight defibrillator to the scene of a cardiac arrest patient, carried by a 5G-controlled drone.

Then late in 2020, BT announced the UK’s first commercial drone corridor, as part of a consortium evaluating 5G use cases for drone technology. This was for Project XCelerate, part of the wider Future Flight Challenge project, with the aim of establishing the UK’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace. Flight trials were then conducted along an eight kilometer-long corridor during the summer of 2021 in the area of Reading, a midsized town in the south of the country.

With companies such as Dronecloud, HeroTech8, Skyports and DroneStream, BT is aiming to facilitate drone operation for applications such as delivery of healthcare supplies with BVLOS operation, but with recognition that further progress will be needed where high levels of control are required.

That is where the latest Qualcomm platform will figure, and it is notable it has attracted widespread interest from telcos around the world. Among testimonials, one that caught the eye came from China Unicom, the country’s third largest telco, which stated: “Qualcomm has been working with China Unicom to drive integration of 5G and IoT into vertical use cases and provide products such as 5G modules and 5G industrial gateways for automation and robotics use cases, with focused areas including industrial equipment, iron and steel manufacturing, transportation and port, mining and energy, and healthcare. The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform will benefit more use cases.”

This comes at a time Qualcomm has already lost ground in China as a result of trade sanctions imposed by the US under the Trump regime and sustained to a significant degree under the current Biden incumbency. It highlights the ambivalence on both sides. The US has been reluctant to cut off technology trade entirely because that would hit its own big players hard.

The government therefore focused sanctions particularly on Huawei, but even there has relaxed them to some extent. Qualcomm in November 2020 received a license from the federal government to sell 4G mobile phone chips to Huawei as an exemption to restrictions imposed only two months earlier.

On China’s side, there has long been concern over dependence on US technology, especially on the semiconductor front, but again tempered by the need to sustain competitiveness of its own electronics sector. We recall that in 2015, antitrust regulators in China imposed some additional restrictions on foreign companies operating inside the country within the semiconductor industry.

This brought Qualcomm as well as Taiwan’s MediaTek more directly into the firing line of China’s antitrust regulators, the aim being not to exclude such companies but impede them so as to stimulate indigenous state-run companies such as Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) and Spreadtrum Communications. This largely backfired, because the problem was not so much one of volume and revenues, where China was already at the head, but over advanced technology. Those Chinese companies were several generations behind the leading edge and still are.

The result is that still today China Unicom is trumpeting its relationship with Qualcomm on the drone front, which will be another major technological battleground.