It’s easy to look at a product like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and say “Lockheed manufactures that aircraft,” which would be a true statement. However, much of the “manufacturing” the company does is actually “assembly” of a collection of parts manufactured by other, smaller companies. Despite the importance of these firms, not many people know much about them or the vital role they play in the defense industry. One reason for this is most people wouldn’t know where to start looking. Even of people who know that an F-35 is the amalgamation of 10,000 smaller parts, few of them could say what those parts are… and fewer still would be able to find out who makes them.

Despite their low profile, these companies can have massive effects across the entire sector, and it’s important for investors to know which small companies support the larger ones. Besides their support, many smaller firms are research and development heavy, and watching what tech these businesses are working on can give clues into future contracts. One of these companies is Qualcomm Incorporated, an electronics manufacturing, research, and design firm that specializes in semiconductor and other components as well as “internet of things” technology.

While Qualcomm has its hands in several different industries, one sector that few people know about is the company’s work with drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Qualcomm’s Flight Snap is the firm’s drone-specific processor board which offers “robust connectivity, advanced software and development tools, along with cutting-edge mobile technologies.” The processor will eventually integrate with the “5G” network once it goes live in 2020.

The “biggest” advantage that Snap Dragon has over other drone processor boards is its small size. In aviation and space flight, smaller is better. The smaller and lighter an aircraft’s components are, the more accessories, sensors, cargo, and fuel it can carry. Snap Dragon’s tiny size also means that the entire aircraft can get smaller, which is excellent for military operators looking to sneak past air defenses, as well as first responders who need to conduct search and rescue missions in tight environments.

“From a rocket point of view, smaller usually means less air resistance and a lighter object requires less fuel to counteract Earth’s gravitational pull and launch into orbit,” said Richard Dixon, a propulsion engineer who currently works in the space sector. “For drones, smaller can be better if you want your drone to be hard to spot. A lighter drone will require less propulsion (and therefore less fuel/electricity) to generate enough lift to keep it airborne.”

Besides its small size, the Snap Dragon processor is extremely powerful, meaning that controls respond better and quicker, which Qualcomm says means a safer aircraft. The processor also supports high-performance cameras — which are crucial for both civilian and military operations. Most importantly, the board can handle advanced navigation equipment and software, which is another key feature that all modern aircraft depend on.

The Snap Dragon board is available for purchase now through Qualcomm, though it is marketed as a business-to-business tool for drone developers. Eventually, the company plans to make the processor the heart and soul of its own aircraft, the Qualcomm Drone Development Platform, which will incorporate these features with other technology, like artificial intelligence.

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This story was written by Joseph Lefave

Feature image courtesy of Qualcomm