The impact of 5G wireless technologies on the robotics ecosystem will be huge, as companies take advantage of faster speeds and lower latency for communication between devices and across the cloud. At RoboBusiness 2019, Qualcomm’s Dev Singh will be discussing these impacts, and how communication and computing will become as important as autonomy for future robot designs.
Singh, the global head of the Robotics and Intelligent Machines division of Qualcomm, will discuss how the world of robotics is rapidly changing due to faster connectivity at a session in the RoboBusiness Innovation track. Technologies such as 5G, on-device artificial intelligence, and heterogeneous computing are poised to transform the way robots think, operate, and behave. This spans the ecosystem of robotics, from small consumer robots that fit into the palm of your hand, all the way to large-scale industrial robots on factory floors.
Robotics Business Review recently spoke with Singh about Qualcomm’s involvement in the robotics space, which includes the release of the Robotics RB3 Platform earlier this year. The platform is an optimized set of hardware, software and tools designed to help developers create the next generation of advanced consumer, enterprise, and industrial robotics products.
Q: What has been Qualcomm’s approach or interest in the robotics space?
Singh: We have a dedicated product line within Qualcomm that is focused on robotics and intelligent machines, and have had success over the past two to three years. We ventured into robotics with the drone angle to begin with, and then expanded into ground robotics.
You see today we have different kinds of robots being integrated into our daily lives, whether it’s a home robot like Roomba or other home robots coming in the future. On the industry, there are enterprise factory robots, and we have a road map and product offering that addresses all the segments in robotics. We can provide a solution that goes into a $200 toy robot to a solution that goes into a $2 million factory robot. We have a vast portfolio in terms of compute and connectivity options. We are very bullish about robotics, and are investing heavily in it.
Q: Since you released the RB3 platform earlier this year, how has the interest from robotics developers been?
Singh: We have been seeing a lot of interest in it. We were out of stock for a bit, and we just kept replenishing the stock as well. On top of the computer chipset for communications, it also has a great capability for AI and on-device machine learning. It supports Linux, ROS, and AWS RoboMaker, and of course it has multiple sensors and cameras.
Most importantly, the DNA of our chipsets comes from the mobile side of the business. So things like security and other features are very important, and the chipset has the same DNA.
Q: Were you surprised by the interest in this platform that caused it to temporarily be out of stock?
Singh: Within a month of the release, the inventory we had started flying off the shelf. So people are really invested in this platform because of the price point, the power advantage, and the consolidation that this brings. I cannot share many details on who’s buying, and all of that stuff, but there is a great deal of interest.
I did feel that from the beginning that this would be the case, because there’s nothing like this on the market today that provides you everything as a building block. Of course, there are things that can be done in the future. We are planning to add motors and have this on wheels, and to do things that include 5G and other approaches.
All-in-one approach is resonating
Q: Do you have a sense of what kinds of markets the developers are interested in when using the platform?
Singh: On the consumer side, people are trying to build higher-end robots. On the enterprise side, we’re seeing interest from people building [commercial] cleaning robots, as well as delivery robots, and delivery drones.
On the industrial side, we’re seeing interest for warehouse and factory AGVs (automated ground vehicles). Interestingly, [we’re seeing interest] for robotics arms, which are used in manufacturing for collaborative robots. For example, things like quality inspection, using equipment in the factory that’s handling material at the same time inspecting it.
Q: Do you get a sense about what part of the platform package is drawing them in? Is it the communication package, or more about the computing power, speed, or something else?
Singh: It’s all of the above. It starts with the capability of the 845 chipset. The chipset itself has come a long way – our latest innovation is a 10-nanometer chipset, which has significant power and thermal advantage. But at the same time it has compute that is at the level needed for high-end robots – it has CPU, GPU, DSP and AI capabilities. Of course, that is the main thing that people look for – does it have enough compute for my application.
So if that’s a checkbox and it’s a level playing field, then other things like the integration of Wi-Fi, or the cameras, where we have a 4K camera capability to all the depth cameras, or having that consolidation on top of the communication piece. If you want to build a seamless system you would have to get the modem from somebody, the camera from somebody, and the processor from somebody. But now this brings it all up on one platform.
Q: When do you anticipate that we’ll start seeing some new designs from developers as they start to use the RB3 platform?
Singh: I think we’ll see something coming up before the end of the year. Usually these are on newer products, and people want to test them thoroughly before they put them out. Of course, I would want to do the same because I don’t want to have a bad experience. I think people are being very, very cautious about how they want to have a valid use case before they put this in somebody’s home, versus in the factory that might just be replacing an existing one. So reliability and thoroughness is important.
Today’s robotics trends
Q: Why do you think there’s such a great interest in robotics, fascination with the technology or growth within the space?
Singh: I think there’s always been a lot of fascination round robotics and technology, but to build a robot the cost point was super high. For example, if people wanted to build a robot three or five years ago, they would have to worry about things like navigation, and how to calculate feature points, and do the path planning and obstacle avoidance and all of those things.
But now over the past three or five years, you’ve seen that all of those things are becoming more like a packaged solution that’s already available. You can take something like the RB3 platform and go to an open-source download, and then grab a navigation package and cameras. The technology is becoming more and more advanced, and the compute is available at a cost point where this can go into a phone.
Qualcomm has demonstrated this on the mobile side, bringing so much power to the phones over the years, and that’s what’s happening on the robot side – where compute elements, sensors, cameras and other technologies are coming together at an affordable price point. So now people are saying, ‘OK, I don’t have to worry about navigation, I just have to worry about my end use case – I can do an AGV for cleaning or for retail scanning of shelves. I don’t have to worry about many parts of the robot because most of the building blocks are available and at a good cost point.’