One of the main hurdles to drones’ ability to zip around the country delivering packages is a requirement that they stay within their operator’s line of sight during daylight hours. Qualcomm Inc. is working on a solution that’s been right before our eyes: cellphone networks.
The rules from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration exist to help prevent accidents with commercial aircraft and mitigate the risk that drones could get out of control in areas where it’s not safe for them to go. By tapping into the networks of towers that connect phones to each other and to the internet, drone operators would be able to track and maneuver them even when they aren’t visible.
The industry is desperate for a workaround to the FAA rules, which are hindering the widespread adoption of the devices, according to Tom Morrod, senior director for consumer electronics at industry researcher IHS Markit.
“This will have a particularly strong impact on retail and logistics uses for delivering goods,” he said.
Qualcomm, the largest maker of chips for mobile phones, has been testing its idea from the helipad on the roof of its San Diego headquarters. The location, the company says, is ideal because it’s inside airspace controlled by the nearby Miramar Marine Corps. Air Station and is regularly overflown by military aircraft. That provides lots of opportunity to prove the drones can operate safely in restricted airspace, go out of sight behind buildings and not get sucked up in the engines of an F-18.
Just like call signs used by the supersonic fighter aircraft that blast by, the drone has its own name, “Qualcomm 1,” and has to check in with Miramar control tower before taking to the skies. Qualcomm 1 is connected to the cellular networks and has so far done more than 550 flights in that congested area of “Top Gun” fame, gathering data in hopes of persuading regulators that drones can be safe on their own.
“With autonomy plus connectivity you have multiple mechanisms that ensure safety,” said Qualcomm’s Paul Guckian, who’s heading the research and development program to make drones more compatible with the new rules. “When you consider the safety of people on the ground and the safety of aircraft in the national airspace it’s all about fail-safe mechanisms redundancy.”
In general, advanced drones are smart enough to take care of themselves, Qualcomm says. Press an icon on a tablet or smartphone and they’ll head off to wherever they’ve been told to go. If a nosy seagull or building gets in the way, the drone will see it using cameras and computer vision and fly around the obstacle. If the battery runs too low to get to where it’s headed, it’ll stop and land safely.
What the cellular connection adds is backup safety and control. And a link to an existing network means drones can be easily tracked and flown in densely populated areas where they have the potential to cause the most mischief and also be the most use. For example, airports could be made into automatic no-fly zones for drones by adding software that could detect when the drone connected to cell towers near that airspace, and then either not allow the device to take off in the first place or force it to land immediately.
For companies like Qualcomm, removing the roadblocks may well be worth the effort. Like other chipmakers, it’s looking at drones and robotics as potential new markets that can help make up for a slowdown in smartphone and personal computer markets, where growth is minimal and declining. Market researcher Gartner Inc. estimates that there were 2.2 million drones sold for personal use last year, up from 242,000 in 2013. That's still a tiny amount compared with the more than one billion smartphone units shipped last year.
Building the drone around the guts of a mobile phone gives Qualcomm multiple advantages over a group of independent components, according to Guckian. All of the computing power and communications technology comes in a small package that’s already been fine-tuned to make it last longer on a limited battery. That means a cellphone-based drone can be smaller, fly further or carry a heavier load of other equipment.
Qualcomm 1 has already had a fight with bees, which proved to be no threat, and has attracted the attention of birds who were worried about its proximity to their nests. Avoiding a bird in flight remains a challenge for the onboard artificial intelligence that Qualcomm is working on and will make it all the more capable in complex environments.
“Seagulls don’t collaborate very well so detect-and-avoid technology and the speed of that technology is very important,” Guckian said. “That’s a challenge we’re still looking at.”