- Qualcomm released a new, $500 platform with artificial intelligence and 5G capabilities.
- The San Diego chip-maker says the chipset and developer's toolkit represents a breakthrough because it contains state-of-the-art electronics yet serves a broad spectrum of robot makers.
- Big companies including Panasonic, Sony, and LG use Qualcomm robotics now – LG says it will use the new kit in products next year.
- The new kit comes at a key time for automation, as company rethink supply chains and personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Qualcomm, the giant computer chip-maker, released a new set of powerful computer chips and a hardware developer kit on Wednesday that the company says represents a breakthrough in robotics:
The $495 Qualcomm Robotics RB5 Platform is the first product that could help anyone from a lone inventor to a multi-national corporation efficiently build robots with the latest 5G and artificial intelligence capabilities, the San Diego company says.
The software and hardware package is meant to provide a complete developer kit to an entrepreneur looking to prototype robots, but be powerful and affordable enough for big companies to use the chip set to build state-of-the-art robots at a large scale.
"We have thrown kind of a kitchen sink at this platform," says Dev Singh, Qualcomm's head of Robotics. "It's a Swiss Army Knife."
Qualcomm's previous robotic chips are being used in NASA's Mars 2020 mission to take a rover to the red planet next month. On the other end of the spectrum, a simpler robot chip set and developer kit released last year is used in $200 autonomous vacuums.
Release of the Qualcomm Robotics RB5 Platform comes at a key time for robot development. As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of the global supply chain and prompted the US and other countries to shift production out of China, companies may be more likely to look to robots and automation to keep factories efficient.
"The biggest implication [of the coronavirus outbreak] is going to be more rapid adoption of automation," Duncan Davidson, a general partner with venture firm Bullpen Capital, told Business Insider in a recent interview.
The chip set and developer kit provide "technology and pieces of building blocks to address any kind of robot," Singh says. In the past, a robot-builder that wanted to add vision systems would have to piece together different software and cameras, hoping they were compatible. "We've already taken care of that," Singh says.
Entrepreneurs might build a prototype of a new delivery system using all parts of the developer kit to quickly take a product to market. A big company might just use the platform to give robotic arms on an assembly line a 5G connection. (5G capabilities are useful for robots and drones because it is faster and more reliable than 4G: There's less risk of heavy equipment or drones being thrown off by a weak signal or outage.)
The kit comes in two parts: a chip set, and the developers kit.
The chip set
The chip set includes a processor customized for robotics applications that can run complex and data-heavy AI functions, such as continually learning a complex topography with many cameras hosted in one database to help an autonomous swarm of drones fly through a city.
The software also contains a powerful image processor that helps a robot cleaner discern between a sock on a floor or a soda spill. The internet-connected chips can work with Bluetooth, WiFi, 4G, and 5G connectivity, so the robots will not become outdated upon widespread adoption of 5G, the mobile technology bringing better connectivity and change to the mobile industry.
The developer's tool kit
The developer's kit includes hardware about the size of an open-faced sandwich. The platform offers support for an operating system, drivers for cameras and sensors, and software connections for motors. A $700 version of the chip set and tool kit includes cameras and sensors.
The chip set and kit can support 18 cameras, seven running concurrently, so that a drone would have no blind-spots. The gear functions in temperature extremes from -29 Fahrenheit to 221. And it includes encryption and cybersecurity controls, among its many features.
Early adopters of the robot platform include LG, the $56 billion Korean electronics manufacturer, which plans to use it in new products next year, Qualcomm says.
Other companies that use Qualcomm robotics include Alibaba, Panasonic, Siemens, and Sony. The company's robots are used in industries including agriculture, cleaning, drones, retail, and many others. The 37,000-employee company based in San Diego had 2019 revenue of $37 billion. The company says it has around 100 engineers dedicated to robotics, but many other parts of the company contribute to projects from that department, which draws from its $5 billion annual research and development revenue.