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Qualcomm Accelerator Program Targets Robots With Smartphone Guts

Qualcomm is betting that the powerful computers and sensors inside smartphones will enable robots to navigate their environment without crashing and without human instructions.

To that end, Qualcomm recently selected ten start-ups to participate in a four-month robotics accelerator program, the latest effort to show that its chips can be used in small, affordable robots. Qualcomm is trying to move its chips out of the smartphone market, which is in its twilight years.

Each of the start-ups will receive $120,000 and reference designs based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips, which are widely used in smartphones from companies like Samsung and LG. Three start-ups specialize in building drones, others plan to build robotic arms for small businesses, and another company has designed a gaming robot for dogs. 

Qualcomm launched the competition as the smartphone market cools off. The company sells tons of wireless chips and computer chips to smartphone manufacturers, so it has been trying to avoid the decline by marketing products to new industries like robotics, corporate servers, and household devices.

Qualcomm has already built proof-of-concept robots, including an autonomous rover that can detect and recognize simple patterns in photographs in order to navigate without human controls. It contains Qualcomm's Zeroth machine learning software, which helps to classify images from a depth-sensing camera.

The robotics accelerator follows acquisitions that could strengthen Qualcomm's robotics efforts. In February, Qualcomm acquired KMel Robotics, an aerial drone design company, for an undisclosed sum. Last year, it paid $2.5 billion for Cambridge Silicon Radio, which designs wireless communications chips for the Internet of Things.

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