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Intel, Qualcomm stake claims in Linux drones

Jan 6, 2016 — by Eric Brown 1,662 views

In Linux-related drone news at CES: Intel acquires AscTec, ZeroTech tips a Snapdragon Flight based “Ying” UAV, and DJI and Ford launch a $100K app contest.

At CES in Las Vegas, drones have stepped up to compete with TVs, virtual reality gear, self-driving cars, and home automation gizmos for the world’s media attention. Several announcements early in the show reflect some emerging trends in the drone market, including fixed wing craft, open source hardware, advanced computer vision, and IoT integration.

Parrot Disco
(click to enlarge)

Yesterday, we covered Parrot’s prototype of a Disco fixed-wing UAV for the prosumer market, which offers the advantage of greater speed and flight time compared to quadcopters. We also looked at new Raspberry Pi drone autopilots, including the PXFmini from Erle Robotics and the Navio2 from Emlid.


Here we look at some other Linux-related drone developments, including:

  • Intel’s acquisition of Ascending Technologies (AscTec)
  • Yuneec’s new Typhoon H hexacopter
  • ZeroTech’s new Snapdragon Flight based Ying drone
  • DJI’s app development contest, cosponsored with Ford


Intel acquires AscTec

At the start of this year’s CES show, Intel announced it had signed a definitive agreement to acquire Ascending Technologies. In acquiring AscTec, Intel is planning to combine the German firm’s Linux-based drones with its RealSense 3D cameras to extend computer vision capabilities. Financial terms were not disclosed for the acquisition of the 75-person, Krailing, Germany based firm, which signed up Intel as a minority investor a year ago. The company will continue to support existing customers, says Intel. According to AscTec, “well over 1,000 of our unique aircraft solutions are in frequent operation worldwide.”

Left to right: Asctec Falcon 8, Firefly, and Pelican
(click images to enlarge)

A year ago at CES, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich brought several members of German drone firm Ascending Technologies (AscTec) onstage to demonstrate the company’s Ubuntu-based AscTec Fire drone equipped with Intel’s Realsense 3D depth cameras and its own “sense-and-avoid” algorithms. The demo showed off the hexacopter’s obstacle avoidance capabilities, and included a game of drone Pong in which they paddled the UAV away by simply by moving toward it. (A similar trick was recently demonstrated with the Kickstarter launch of a safety-minded, Linux-based Fleye drone.)

According to Intel, AscTec will collaborate with Intel’s Perceptual Computing team “to develop UAV technology that can help drones fly with more awareness of their environments.” Of particular interest to Intel is the potential for combining its RealSense cameras with AscTec’s expertise in obstacle avoidance in order to comply with expected safety requirements from the FAA and other regulatory agencies around the world.

AscTec’s Intel Core-based Mastermind flight computer (left) and Atom based AtomBoard
(click images to enlarge)

AscTec line of professional AscTec Falcon 8 drones, as well as its research drones, run on either a 3rd generation Intel Core i7 based AscTec Mastermind or Intel Atom-based AscTec AtomBoard mainboards, both of which run Ubuntu. AscTec’s research line includes the Neo quadcopter, Firefly hexacopter, Hummingbird quadcopter, and the Pelican, a heavy duty cargo quadcopter.

AscTec Falcon 8 “Happy to join Intel” LED painting using long-exposure photography


Yuneec debuts its Typhoon H hexacopter

Typhoon H

This week, Yuneec, which received a $60 million investment from Intel last August, announced a new professional level Typhoon H hexacopter model that can be fitted with a RealSense camera.

Yuneec’s prosumer “Typhoon” drones compete directly with market leader DJI (Phantom) and newcomer 3DR (Solo). At CES, Yuneec showed off an impressive new Typhoon H hexacopter that competes with DJI’s higher end Inspire series, but at a lower, under $2,000 price. The Typhoons use Android-based controllers, but do not appear to run Linux.

The Typhoon H was showcased last night at Intel’s razzle-dazzle keynote, which focused primarily on wearables running Intel’s Curie module. The Typhoon H will support integration of Intel’s RealSense 3D cameras, which will help it provide “the most advanced collision avoidance system of any drone,” said CEO Krzanich, according to a PC World report. Krzanich demonstrated the drone’s skills on a simulated test track.


ZeroTech Ying to debut Snapdragon Flight

Last year Qualcomm said Yuneec would offer the first drone to run its Snapdragon- and Ubuntu Linux-based Snapdragon Flight reference platform. Since then, there has been no word on Yuneec’s promised Snapdragon Flight based drone.

Instead, Qualcomm announced a “Ying” drone based on Snapdragon Flight this week at CES. The Ying, developed by Chinese drone vendor ZeroTech, along with Internet giant Tencent, leverages the Ubuntu Linux-driven reference platform that’s due to ship globally in the first half of 2016. No images were supplied, but Qualcomm featured a drone in its pre-CES sneak-peak video that may well be the Ying. The video (below) shows a small quadcopter nimbly navigating an obstacle avoidance course.

A drone that may be the the Ying from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight CES teaser video
(click image to enlarge)

Built by China-based Zerotech, the Ying leverages the Snapdragon 801 SoC’s 4K capture capability to “supersample” video images. This provides a stabilized, corrected video and picture recording at 1080P, as well as a first person view at 720p that can be directly streamed or uploaded to Tencent’s drone social community platforms Wexin and QQ, says Qualcomm. No other details were provided.

Zerotech calls itself the “industry’s leading UAV manufacturer,” although most observers point to DJI has owning about 70 percent of the market. ZeroTech sells a line of Xplorer drones that compete with DJI’s much imitated Phantom.

At publication time, meanwhile, there was no word about GoPro’s upcoming Karma drone, or rumors that it might use Snapdragon Flight.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight CES teaser video of quadcopter that may be the Ying


DJI launches $100K drone dev contest with Ford

DJI and Ford Motor launched a $100,000 developer challenge involving drone-to-vehicle communications between its Linux-based Matrice 100 quadcopter and Ford cars running its AppLink or OpenXC connectivity technologies.

DJI and Ford are combining two of the hottest tech trends of 2016 — drones and car computers — in the third edition of the DJI SDK Challenge. A total of $100,000 in prizes will be given away to developers who create the best demonstration of an app that depends on drone to car communications to conduct a search and rescue mission. The companies are collaborating with the United Nations with hopes to develop rapidly deployable surveying systems for emergency zones.

Drone to auto demonstration using more advanced, octa-rotor DJI Spreading Wings drone
(click image to enlarge)

Developers will use DJI’s Ubuntu Linux driven, Nvidia Tegra K1-based Manifold autopilot, a new option for its high-end Matrice 100 quadcopter. They can also use the optional, obstacle-avoiding Guidance vision system, which has its own Linux-ready Guidance-SDK.

In November, Manifold was released with an “open” Onboard-SDK that supports Linux, Windows, and Arduino. A similar Onboard-SDK with Linux support was also released for the $700 and up DJI Phantom 3 and the photography-focused, $2,900 and up Inspire.

DJI Manifold alone (left) and mounted on Matrice 100
(click images to enlarge)

The applications must enable a drone to autonomously take off from the truckbed of a Ford F150 pickup, collect data on the whereabouts of survivors, and transmit the information back to the vehicle. The drone must then then land on the truckbed autonomously. Fifteen teams will be shortlisted into the challenge’s second round, and will be provided with DJI’s SDK aerial platform, the Matrice 100, as well as the newly announced Zenmuse X3 camera.

Accepted applications for the challenge must interface with a Ford Sync IVI computer’s AppLink connectivity solution or alternatively, the open source OpenXC hardware/software automotive development platform. This week, Ford received new backing from Toyota and QNX for its GENIVI hosted, open source SmartDeviceLink version of AppLink, both of which are being held up as alternatives to Android Auto or CarPlay for IVI device integration. SmartDeviceLink does not appear to be part of the contest, however. More information on the challenge may be found at DJI, as well as at Ford.

DJI SDK Challenge Search and Rescue video demo

Also at CES, DJI announced a 4K camera version of its flagship Phantom 3 quadcopter, and a new Mobile SDK 3.0 for Android and iOS app development on DJI drones. The new SDK is said to be the most open yet, removing special Developer levels so that any developer has full access to the codebase, New features include MissionManager and CustomMission. The latter enables “complicated user-generated flight behaviors, and be called upon instantly and repeatedly” with a few lines of code, says DJI.

DJI also formally introduced a public beta of its previously announced GEO geofencing service. GEO, which is based on its dynamic airspace mapping AirMap service. GEO provides drone users with up-to-date guidance on locations where flight may be “restricted by regulation or raise safety or security concerns,” says DJI.

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