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FAA Gives Clearance for Qualcomm Drones to Take Flight

The scene looked very official on a recent Thursday at Qualcomm Inc.: there was a pilot in command, a visual observer and flight safety people. Crew members wore reflective vests, hardhats and safety glasses, carried checklists and kept an ear out for radio traffic. All for some experiments on a rolling patch of suburban lawn.

Qualcomm’s quadcopters have come outdoors.

The San Diego-based tech giant announced earlier this month that it received Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly small, unmanned aircraft in tests. Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) has been able to fly them indoors, but flying outside is a whole different ballgame.

“We’re in a real environment,” said Qualcomm executive Paul Guckian. The

Paul Guckian

drones are flying among wind, dust, a lot of unrelated radio traffic and other activity.

For now, experiments are confined to an expanse of grass a short distance from the headquarters, in a circle with a radius of 0.15 nautical miles. There is no flying on weekends, since the tower controlling flights is only open on business days.

When Qualcomm wants to fly its drones, it must check in 24 hours ahead of time with the control tower at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Qualcomm headquarters is in what aviation authorities call class B airspace. It is 3 miles from the tower and in the flight path of several airports — a point illustrated by three Osprey tiltrotor aircraft flying over shortly after a reporter’s visit.

On that Friday, engineers were experimenting with “fail over” control. They simulated the loss of the conventional radio signal, and observed how the drone picked up a 4G cellphone signal to let the pilot regain control.

Qualcomm is also testing features that would help a drone fly autonomously — that is, with no human intervention. Computer vision and machine learning are two of the topics it is investigating. One challenge is how an optical system might respond to dust.

The flights are, in part, an exercise to gather data. Generating such data will speed the day when companies and people can fly small drones in the national airspace. “Nothing’s going to move” in the federal rulemaking process without real data, said Guckian, whose title is vice president of engineering with Qualcomm Technologies Inc.

Qualcomm is working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) UAS traffic management office, which is based in its Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Silicon Valley.

Future experiments might involve 5G radio systems and flights beyond a controller’s line of sight.

Qualcomm, of course, wants a piece of the drone business.

In the fall, Qualcomm introduced Snapdragon Flight; it packaged one of its Snapdragon processors with a board of specialized electronics to provide several functions for pint-sized unmanned aircraft.

Since they’re flying in the national airspace, the two diminutive Qualcomm drones need federal registration numbers. Qualcomm asked for and got the number 5775 — the street address for its headquarters building on Morehouse Drive — to register quadcopters N5775T and N5775N.

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