Last week, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Qualcomm Technologies a certificate of authorization (COA) to perform outdoor testing of drones (known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems or UAS) on our San Diego campus, where we have extensive R&D facilities. With this grant, the Qualcomm Research team can now take even greater advantage of our on-campus resources to further accelerate the research and development of our UAS technology using Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.
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. This grant of the COA is unique since 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. The authorization allows the research team to evaluate new technologies in a real-world urban environment—under tight controls at all times.
The authorization grants permission for operation of UAS in Class B airspace at and below 200 feet above ground level for the purpose of research and development.
Qualcomm is committed to the development of UAS technology necessary for safe operations of both consumer and commercial UAS in the national airspace. Our commitment is evidenced in part by the extensive controls that we have successfully implemented in order to qualify for this COA, which will ensure safe flight operations while operating in the highly restricted airspace around our campus.
Our UAS testing will focus on two main areas of research to enable the development and proliferation of safe, advanced, and efficient UAS operations into the national airspace. The first relates to development of remote operation and autonomous flight control algorithms that run on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight drone development platform. These algorithms, which utilize exclusive, highly advanced control and computer vision engines, enable a wide 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. A reliable, robust, secure and efficient communications link is an essential component of safe UAS operations. See, for example, Qualcomm’s response to the FAA notice of proposed rule making on operation and certification of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). “Lost link” scenarios, which cellular connectivity can help protect against, can present serious safety concerns, especially when drones are operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
Qualcomm Technologies will use this new COA to focus on UAS research and testing using cellular technologies, including the developing 5G technologies, with the aim of enabling UAS operations BVLOS and at night. The combination of highly reliable communications capabilities with other key features we are developing and refining, such as computer vision, sensor processing and continuously updated geofencing, are all necessary to enable safe BVLOS operations.
To learn more about this COA and why it’s important for Qualcomm, please read our initial petition to the FAA for a Section 333 exemption, which provides more details on our request and our work on UAS. To learn more about Qualcomm Research’s overall robotics and drone initiatives please visit our robotics research page.