Qualcomm's releasing a robotics platform. Here's how it happened.

Three engineers at Qualcomm pitched the idea as part of the company's program to nurture innovation.

Knightscope K5 Robot in Traffic

The Knightscope K5 surveillance robot surveys traffic.

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Sometime in the spring of 2015 Qualcomm will roll out a robotics development platform. It is aimed at small startups that want to create robotic apps for their particular industries, but the bigger hope is that this hardware and software-based platform will bring some unity – and a bit of presence for Qualcomm -- to what is a very fragmented industry still in its early days.

Using the platform, "any developer can build their own robots. We are hoping to see this spread among the maker community in a kind of grass roots way," Navrina Singh, the head of Qualcomm ImpaQt, Qualcomm’s global innovation program tells me.

It's no secret that Qualcomm has its eyes on robotics, built around its Snapdragon processor, of course.

Last month it announced, as just one example, the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator – a four-month mentor-based program focusing on robotics and intelligent machines via a partnership with Techstars.

It's also been working on Qualcomm Zeroth, a technology that equips robots with perceptual pattern matching functionality. Qualcomm showed how this would work with the Snapdragon Rover in a demonstration in which the the robot sorted different types of toys into the proper bins.

So, the developer platform coming out next year is not a new direction for Qualcomm, but it is telling in how the company has been encouraging innovation.

The short story is that this platform is the baby of three engineers whose day jobs at Qualcomm have nothing to do with robotics. Based in New Jersey, California and India, the trio work on modem software and customer engineering. But they submitted their robotics idea to ImpaQt, got funding, a little leeway in their day-to-day jobs and voila. They had a working prototype in February of this year and a fully-functional prototype in July.

The longer story is that this platform was conceived under a three-year old program at Qualcomm that aims to create and nurture a "culture of innovation and collaboration" at the company, Singh explains.

The program acts as an angel capitalist of sorts, providing funding for ideas and then ushering the nascent projects to the commercial phase of development when they are ready. That is where the robotics platform currently sits within Qualcomm's innovation ecosystem.

Every August Qualcomm introduces a new round of areas it wants to see developed. Employees can submit ideas, and if they find a backer – that is, a unit or department willing to sponsor the idea – Qualcomm gives them certain resources, including telepresence rooms and funding for travel.

The robot development platform strayed a bit from this path in that it was funded in a parallel round outside of the normal cycle.

But Qualcomm wanted to take a flyer on it, Singh says.

Now, to be clear: this is not the same as Qualcomm taking a flyer on an unpromising technology with no obvious commercial application.

The industry may be in its infancy but demand is surging for robots, according to new figures from the Robotic Industries Association.

It reports that total of 21,235 robots, valued at $1.2 billion, were ordered from North American companies in the first nine months of this year, a 35 percent increase in units over the same period in 2013. The biggest application growth year over year has been in spot welding (76 percent), arc welding (39 percent), and assembly (29 percent).

 Qualcomm could, of course, still have a dud on its hands with its forthcoming developer platform. Not that Singh thinks so, especially as there is a related IoT-productivity angle to the offering.

"One idea is to use it to connect to objects in the environment, a light bulb or TV or refrigerator, so they can talk and work together," she says.

 But the formula Qualcomm took to get to this point – employees pitch an idea, sell it to a business unit, get funding and get to work – is spot on, she says, and more ideas are currently working their way through the pipeline.

 "It's the best of both worlds. It allows risk taking at the smallest level of company without people taking a huge amount of risk."

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