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Will drones fill Intel's smartphone market void?

Posted: 06 May 2016 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:drones? RealSense? autonomous drones? drone 100?

Speaking of Intel's existing mobile SoC market, my colleague Rick Merritt wrote in his latest blog, "Its lack of expertise in SoCs, insistence on its x86 architecture and some bad luck kept Intel from enjoying the smartphone boom." He then asked: "Where is the new growth, the next big boom after the smartphone calls that Intel missed?"

Although drones apparently have all the right stuff that Intel wants as it tries to diversify beyond PCs, I question whether drones and robots can fill Intel's smartphone market void.

More importantly, I can't help but wonder if Intel, once again, is flying into the drone market from the wrong angle!by throwing its X86 processor at the still unsolved computer vision problems in drone technology.

Vision problems

Companies are trying to solve vision problems by using X86 CPU, GPU, audio DSP, or whatever they find in their shop, said El-Ouazzane. But fundamentally, vision is a very different type of problem, he said.

A vision processor has to do more than just depth extraction. "There are a number of other workloads it must run," the Movidius CEO said. They include: positional tracking of drones, optical tracking, neural networks, scene labelling and others.

The big difference will be a SoC that can beat competitors at "performance per watt" and "performance per dollar," El-Ouazzane concluded. Movidius believes it leads in both categories.

Certainly, Intel is eager to cultivate the budding robot/drone enthusiasts' market.

Just last month, the company launched at the Intel Developer Forum in Shenzhen, China, a Robotic Development Kit and Aero Kit, with hardware and software tools to build robots and drones.

The RealSense 3D camera is a major element of the developer boards.

The Aero Platform is said to be a "ready-to-fly developer platform." It comes with an Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor, DDR3L RAM and flash storage, and it will run a version of embedded Linux.

As we all know, the Intel Atom x7-Z8700 is a power efficient quad-core SoC for Windows and Android tablets and convertibles. You may argue that there's nothing wrong about reusing a tablet processor in a drone development platform.

But if Intel is indeed serious about cracking the drone market, I think the world wants to know if it's planning to design a new SoC from the ground up, tailored specifically for computer vision algorithms, instead of reusing an ill-defined X86 CPU for the job.

Of course, I might be misunderstanding Intel's real motive getting into the drone market.

Earlier this year, in his blogpost, Josh Walden, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's New Technology Group, wrote that drones present Intel with an "incredible opportunity for innovation across a multitude of industries."

He wrote further:

Intel is positioning itself at the forefront of this opportunity to increasingly integrate the computing, communications, sensor and cloud technology required to make drones smarter and more connected.

It's kind of vague. But Walden managed to include in one sentence all the right key words!computing, communications, sensors and cloud!that would make any investors very happy.

So, Intel's foray into drones isn't really about winning the actual vision SoC market, or staking a big claim in the drone market. Rather, drones are financial cover for Intel to convince its shareholders that it's moving into non-PC segments. As long as drones can help Intel bridge into more multi-faceted businesses!whether via the clouds, 5G, servers or data centres!they don't really need to fly all that far.

-Junko YoshidaEE Times

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