FAA Authorizes Qualcomm to Test Its New Technologies for Drones

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) said Thursday the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the big maker of wireless chips and technologies to operate drones outside its San Diego headquarters, which is within five miles of a Marine Corps air base.

Officially known as a certificate of authorization, the permit allows Qualcomm to operate a particular type of unmanned aerial system (UAS) in what the FAA calls “Class B airspace,” which typically surrounds the nation’s busiest airports with an air traffic control tower.

In a blog yesterday, Qualcomm said the permit enables its scientists to operate drones specifically for research and development, and in a specifically defined area less than 200 feet above ground level. The company said it intends to test the capabilities and reliability of its Qualcomm Snapdragon processors in controlling a quadcopter during autonomous flights.

Qualcomm plans to test algorithms that run on Snapdragon processors, which use highly advanced control and computer vision engines for autonomous navigation, obstacle avoidance, waypoint-to-waypoint navigation, sensor-aided “dead reckoning,” and other maneuvers.

The company also will evaluate its technology in “lost link” situations, in which the drone operator loses radio contact with the aircraft. Qualcomm Technologies said it plans to use the FAA’s authorization to test cellular technologies, including LTE/5G technologies still in development, to prevent lost link situations, especially when drones are operating beyond the operator’s visual line of site.

Qualcomm said the combination of its communications capabilities with other key features—including computer vision, sensor processing, and continuously updated geofencing—are all necessary to assure safe operations beyond visual line of sight operations.

Qualcomm said the certificate “is unique since the Qualcomm campus is located within highly restricted Class B airspace.” The campus is less than five miles from the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, a busy military air base.

It was not clear, however, what was unusual about Qualcomm’s permit.

The FAA usually grants certificates of authorization to operate drones to government agencies. An FAA spokesman, Les Dorr, wrote in an email, “The unmanned aircraft systems integration office says they have approved a number of operations in Class B airspace, but I don’t have any details. All such approvals are on a case-by-case basis.”

For commercial UAS operators, the FAA usually grants what it calls a “Section 333” exemption, a reference to FAA regulations that set certification, registration, licensing and other requirements for conventional aircraft operating in U.S. airspace. The aviation agency said it has granted more than 4,600 exemptions for commercial drone operators in the past year or so.


Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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