More news filtering out of Barcelona and the Mobile World Conference. Someday, maybe I’ll make it there. Lots of news. This one about enhancing robotics.

In this announcement, Qualcomm has launched Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform. The platform is the company’s first comprehensive end-to-end robotics development platform that features heterogeneous computing architecture with support for artificial intelligence (AI) processing, additional camera, sensors, and video modules. I received this update from ABI Research.

Aside from Qualcomm’s in-house software development kits (SDK), the platform also supports Linux, Robot Operating System (ROS), and Amazon AWS Robomaker, making it very accessible to robotics creators and developers. Most importantly, the platform features integrated support for LTE cellular connectivity and future upgradability to 5G. This latter supports the talk of the week at the conference. (Not surprisingly, no talk of 6G 😉

Commercial robots are now supporting new use-cases where they need to be autonomous, agile, intelligent, and self-aware of their environments.

For applications such as last mile delivery, retail assistance, construction, tower inspection, construction and mining, robots need to support new capabilities beyond just function automation and control, for instance acquiring a high level of autonomous perception, navigation and agile manipulation capabilities in real-time. This is where platforms such as Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform come to play. Thanks to its support for a wide range of sensors and the ability to use these sensors to dynamically manage, control, and schedule the robots’ functions, platforms such as Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform provides the robot with the required intelligence and enable them to make informed decisions during their operation in line with the task expected from them.

Some Qualcomm’s competitors have already launched similar platforms; these include Nvidia’s Jetson, and Intel RealSense, although both platforms have mainly focused on machine-vision applications which provide the robot a full autonomy for its operation. In contrast, Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform comes with embedded connectivity, enabling robots to communicate with the outside world. This ability not only allows the robot to augment the self-awareness of its environment but also provides the robot with additional capabilities including better collaboration with humans and machines.

At present, the adoption of LTE in outdoor robotics remains low. However, future potential is huge. Qualcomm may be early in the game by incorporating LTE connectivity into its platform, but this will get early adopters to commit to the hardware, with anticipation for 5G support in the future.

ABI Research estimates the shipment of robots with cellular connectivity, including LTE and 5G, to reach 950,000 units by 2027. This is a US$48 billion market opportunities targeted by robotics developers, chipset vendors, camera and sensor manufacturers, and robotics software and service providers.

5G’s low latency enables robotics vendors to host some of the existing onboard capabilities to the cloud and introduce new capabilities to existing robotics hardware. Existing onboard capabilities, such as object and people detection, path planning and optimization, can be shifted to the cloud to benefit from a larger set of data lake. At the same time, the robotics system will have access to capabilities that cannot be previously hosted on an existing system.

At present, remote control appears to be the focus, with Toyota’s T-HR3 and Naver’s AMBITEX, but the real game-changers will be conversational AI and swarm intelligence. With 5G, enterprise users will be able to connect their fleet of outdoor robots to the cloud and enjoy the performance, scalability, and flexibility of the cloud-based intelligence.

What impact the technology will have on the robotics industry in the future?

Moving forward, cellular connectivity, especially 5G, will become the de facto connectivity method for outdoor commercial robots for many reasons.

  • As a global standard, LTE and 5G enjoy economies of scale. This brings down the total cost of ownership of cellular networks and the price of cellular modem chipsets, allowing robotics developers to integrate 5G connectivity with ease. This seems to be the strategy that Qualcomm is taking with its robotics portfolio, and the launch of Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform is certainly a step in the right direction.
  • Although Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform does not support 5G at this stage, it lays out the foundation for augmenting the self-awareness capabilities in the future. 5G will enable robots to augment their self-awareness capabilities compared to fully autonomous robots, for instance identifying moving or static obstacles even if they are far away and not in the line of sight with the robot.
  • In the future, this will enable better collaboration between robots and humans or other machines in their environments. Humans will be able to control robots from a remote distance in near real time. At the same time, a fleet of robots will be able to exchange information as they are connected to the cloud platform via cellular connectivity, and coordinate among themselves to perform a specific task or duty.
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