Qualcomm gets OK to test drones in Class B airspace at its San Diego campus

Qualcomm Technologies (NASDAQ:QCOM) is going full bore on its drone R&D now that it has obtained a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA to do outdoor testing of drones on its San Diego campus.


  Image source: Qualcomm 

The grant of the COA is unique because the Qualcomm campus is located within highly restricted Class B airspace within a few miles of an airport with an operational air traffic control tower, according to VP of Engineering Paul Guckian in a blog post. The authorization grants permission for operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in Class B airspace at and below 200 feet above the ground.

"Our goal is to test and refine UAS technologies, such as autonomous operation and reliable 4G/5G communications, which help enhance safety in drone deployments -- protecting people and property on the ground, as well as other aircrafts in the airspace," Guckian said.

Qualcomm will have to follow stringent operational requirements -- such as alerting the local aircraft control that it's testing at least 48 hours in advance, notes Forbes.

The plan is to focus on two main areas of research. The first relates to development of remote operation and autonomous flight control algorithms that run on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight drone development platform. The algorithms, which use exclusive, highly advanced control and computer vision engines, enable a variety of critical operations for safety, including autonomous navigation, obstacle avoidance, waypoint to waypoint navigation, landing zone determination, stabilized hovering, and sensor-aided dead reckoning, among others.

A second area of research involves another crucial aspect of commercial UAS use: the communications link from the UAS to the ground and vice versa. Qualcomm says a reliable, robust, secure and efficient communications link is an essential component of safe UAS operations, and cellular connectivity can help protect against "lost link" scenarios, especially when drones are operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

Qualcomm says it will use the new COA to focus on UAS research and testing using cellular technologies, including developing 5G technologies, with the aim of enabling UAS operations BVLOS and at night. Qualcomm has argued in FAA filings that cellular technology in particular is reliable and ideal for UAS. State-of-the-art computer vision using onboard cameras and augmented by advanced sensor technologies can be used for a 360-degree view to meet the FAA's "see and avoid" and positive control requirements.

Last year, Amazon complained about how slow the U.S. government is to approve drone tests. As a result, it ended up conducting flight tests in multiple locations abroad, where it was able to refine its designs without a lot of regulatory hassle. Qualcomm waited about a year to get its COA.

AT&T (NYSE: T) and Intel earlier this year said they're working to solve major issues in the UAV space, including connectivity. AT&T's Internet of Things (IoT) team and the AT&T Foundry innovation center in Palo Alto, Calif., are working with Intel to evaluate performance of the LTE network at higher altitudes.

For more:
- see this Qualcomm post
- see this Forbes article

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