When Robots Fly: Future of Autonomous Aircraft

Author: Gareth Keane Senior Investment Manager for Qualcomm Ventures

Robots have loomed large in my imagination since I watched the first installments of the Star Wars saga as child — I love those moments when Luke needs R2-D2 to perform some function in the back of his X-wing, and R2-D2 knows just what to do. And remember it was R2, acting on its own, that finally fixed the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive in Empire.

The idea that a machine might be capable of autonomously navigating a complex environment to do something useful with little to no human intervention is pretty amazing and what’s more amazing is it’s happening now and I believe will get progressively better over time

It’s an idea we’re excited about, both at Qualcomm Incorporated and at Qualcomm Ventures, the investment arm of Qualcomm Incorporated. Although Qualcomm is best known as a leader in communications technologies, the company has invested billions of dollars in platforms that enable highly power-efficient computation, communications and sensor integration at the edge of the network. These three capabilities have enabled entrepreneurs to make incredible strides in many frontier technologies, ranging from autonomous vehicles, IoT and augmented reality.

In the area of robotics, Qualcomm’s technology has enabled many startup companies to build “smarter” robots at lower BOM costs. It’s a natural space for Qualcomm to play in, because the technologies Qualcomm invented to power a smartphone can also be used to provide robots with the power and “brain” they need to see, sense, communicate and act autonomously. The technology is progressing quickly, thanks to innovations from companies like Qualcomm.

There is strong evidence that flying robots will provide both consumer and enterprise customers with significant value.

And there has been a breathtaking rate of advances in particular within the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ecosystem.

Qualcomm Ventures has been making investments across the UAV technology stack, ranging from enabling technologies like sensors and powertrains to full-stack companies providing a complex blend of hardware and software to solve real problems and create value for specific industries like construction and agriculture. While many of the industries for these startups are still nascent, there is strong evidence that flying robots will provide both consumer and enterprise customers with significant value.

We believe that the insight and understanding that Qualcomm, and by extension Qualcomm Ventures, has into the fundamental building blocks of technology allows us to add value over and above many other investors. A few ways we do this is by helping our portfolio companies access platform capabilities that can be quite challenging to understand without the technical expertise that Qualcomm has. Additionally, we can bring together select portfolio companies with Qualcomm’s Research and Development group and product teams who are building the future of robots, to provide guidance and access to technology that can help take a company to the next level.

So what potential do we see for autonomous aircraft? Lots of experts and industry watchers have attempted to quantify what the industry will look like once it matures — these estimates range wildly, but the general consensus is that there will be millions of autonomous flying robots in the coming years, and that these robots will create billions of dollars in economic value by performing tasks ranging from inspection and observation to package delivery.

A lot has to happen before that vision comes to fruition — advances in essential data and intelligence services, safety, connectivity, the regulatory environment, etc. Some of those advances are being developed by engineers at Qualcomm and other big tech companies, and many of them will come from the startup world. We’re excited to be a part of driving the industry forward.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

Gareth is a Senior Investment Manager for Qualcomm Ventures. He joined the team in 2012 and has been heavily involved in Qualcomm Ventures activities in the hardware and connected device ecosystems. He helped define the Qualcomm Ventures investment thesis around UAVs and robotics, and led the Qualcomm Ventures investments in companies like SkyCatch and Spire. Learn more about Gareth: https://www.qualcommventures.com/team/gareth-keane