Qualcomm working to accelerate the wide-scale deployment of drones

Paul Guckian, VP Engineering, Qualcomm Technologies Inc.

During his 5G keynote at CTIA Super Mobility 2016, Qualcomm Technologies CTO Matt Grob took the stage and showed what it takes to lead in 4G and upcoming 5G technology. He also shared how the company’s research in the area of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, and the joint trial with AT&T will pave the road to 5G specifications as they relate to wide-scale deployments of numerous drone use cases. Grob also shared with the audience a demo video, showing Qualcomm’s FAA-authorized UAS Flight Center and some of the early findings from the trial.

Why cellular for drones?

For more than 30 years, Qualcomm has been accelerating mobile innovations, leveraging its expertise in cellular communications. Now the company is working on optimizing 4G LTE systems and upcoming 5G systems to accelerate the wide-scale deployment of drones. Why? One of the benefits of using cellular for drones is that pilots will be able to routinely, and safely fly beyond line of sight.

In addition, cellular connectivity will be key to flight coordination and control of drones. Similar to air traffic control today, wide-scale deployments of drones will require coordination and traffic management. This will be critical when large fleets of autonomous drones (as well as solitary drones) fly in close proximity of, or within, controlled air space (e.g., an airport or military air base).

Finally, cellular connectivity will enhance autonomous drone operation safety by enabling and expediting the delivery of optimal flight plans and transmission of flight clearances, tracking drone location, and adjusting flight routes in near real time.

It will transform how we live

Leveraging cellular technology for drone operation will transform how we live by enhancing how drones serve industries and consumers alike. For instance, drones will give farmers the opportunity to remotely and more cost effectively survey their crop fields and/or track livestock; from their offices, real estate agents will be able to show clients entire neighborhoods and the proximity of important stores and services; from a secure command post, first responders will be able to safely and efficiently survey disaster areas before developing their plan of engagement; from inside the main ranger station, park rangers can record the number of bighorn sheep located in a national park… the list goes on.

From the consumer perspective, cellular technologies will enable drones to deliver the same types of live video feeds as the aforementioned examples plus the ability to share that video with friends. Or imagine a drone equipped with a 360-degree camera flying through the Grand Canyon. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, amusement park attendees wearing head-mounted VR viewers are “experiencing” a flight through the canyon in real time.

To realize the full potential of drones, Qualcomm Technologies’ research is not only focused on connectivity, but also bringing up new levels of compute and intelligence required for safe drone operation. The company is at the forefront of evolving on-board intelligence for autonomous drones thanks to its advanced research in computer vision, machine learning, sensor processing, precise GNSS localization, obstacle avoidance, autonomous visual navigation, and 4K videography, as well as with Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight drone development.

The story behind the Qualcomm UAS Flight Center

As a leader in 4G LTE technologies, Qualcomm Technologies and its engineers wanted to analyze how, and if drones could operate safely and securely on today’s commercial 4G LTE networks. To test LTE-controlled drones in real-world scenarios, Qualcomm Technologies first worked with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on obtaining a certification of authorization (COA), which allowed the company to test drones on and around the its San Diego headquarters. In March 2016, the FAA granted Qualcomm Technologies a COA, establishing the Qualcomm UAS Flight Center.

Specifically, the authorization granted permission for operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in Class B airspace at and below 200 feet above ground level (AGL) within an operation area radius of 0.15 nautical mile for the purpose of research and development. Since March 2016, the approval expanded — increasing maximum altitude from 200 feet to 400 feet AGL and the operation area from a 0.15 to a 0.5 nautical mile.

The Qualcomm UAS Flight Center not only provided ideal proximity to extensive Qualcomm Technologies R&D facilities, it also allowed for testing inside Class B Controlled airspace because of its proximity to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar — a very active military air station. In addition, the flight center is surrounded by the very real-world conditions autonomous drones must one day navigate, including commercial zones, populated residential areas and large swaths of uninhabited areas. Combined, these areas make the flight center’s location one of the most challenging real-world testing environments possible.

Collaborative research leads to more study

Qualcomm Technologies recently joined forces with AT&T to trial drone operation on AT&T’s commercial networks — testing key performance indicators (KPI’s) such as coverage, signal strength, throughput, latency and mobility under various scenarios. In a press release, Grob explained why this is important for Qualcomm Technologies — mentioning that “the trial with a carrier with the reach and technology of AT&T is a significant step in the development of connectivity technologies for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS), including optimization of LTE networks and advancement of 5G technology for drones. Not only do we aim to analyze wide-scalable LTE optimization for safe, legal commercial SUAS use cases with beyond line-of-sight connectivity, but the results can help inform positive developments in drone regulations and 5G specifications as they pertain to wide-scale deployment of numerous drone use cases.”

Qualcomm Technologies’ early findings showed that current cellular networks can provide coverage to drones at higher altitudes and test drones are capable of demonstrating seamless handovers between different base stations during flights with zero link failures.

To fully realize the potential of LTE-enabled drones, Qualcomm Technologies is working on multiple fronts to further optimize commercial LTE systems, including:

  • Interference management: Despite the fact that drones can be well served by multiple base stations up to 400 feet AGL, we found that increased interference at higher altitudes impact link quality. We are working on ways to manage interference received by the drone from a high number of “neighbor” base stations radiating effectively up to 400 feet AGL.
  • Handover optimization: We also observed different handover characteristics for drones compared to ground mobile devices. Impact and optimization opportunity is under study.
  • LTE-enabled drone-specific requirements: In order for the network to optimize service for drones, the network may need to be able to distinguish a drone from a ground mobile device. The network may also want to reject drones that are impacting KPI’s and are harmful to the network.

Qualcomm drone research is paving the path to 5G

Besides optimizing current 4G LTE networks for safe drone operations, Qualcomm Technologies’ findings are helping accelerate 5G technology development. 5G will bring the required ultra-high reliability, ultra-high availability, incredibly-low latency and strong end-to-end security for mission-critical drone use cases, when connectivity absolutely cannot fail or be compromised (such as with emergency services).

When the capabilities of 5G come into the picture, Qualcomm envisions fleets of drones flying autonomously, communicating, and adjusting behavior through real-time data inputs and sharing. Imagine a team of drones collaborating with each other to conduct a search and rescue mission — searching for and finding a lost hikers and then providing relief operations for survivors.

What we’re discovering in our drone research is contributing remarkably to our 5G development activities, ensuring that 5G, when officially launched, will be a transformational technology and connectivity platform that expands the value of mobile networks, and enhances industries and lives everywhere.


Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

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