The mobile communications and aviation industries are meeting at an exciting cross-roads, with MarketsandMarkets (opens in new tab) stating that by 2030, the global drone package delivery market value is projected to be worth $39 billion.
When paired with cellular connectivity, low-altitude unmanned drones can support exciting 5G use cases such as search and rescue or even the delivery of medical supplies to help improve access to healthcare and save lives. This is because wireless connectivity over cellular networks (rather than handheld radio transmitters) increases safety, security and facilitates Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems. This in turn enables the aforementioned use cases and makes ‘beyond visual line-of-sight’ (BVLOS) drones possible.
Yet one of the major challenges with BVLOS is ensuring consistent access to reliable connectivity to handle the continuous low latency traffic demand between the operator and the drone. Performance is critical and the aviation and cellular communities need to work together to understand what is required for BVLOS and UTMs. For operators, this means providing consistent bandwidth, and low latency communications. To do so, the right tools need to be in place to assess performance-based requirements. This will help assure flight performance and set a benchmark for connectivity, both of which are essential to accelerate the adoption of fully automated 5G drones in an unrestricted airspace.
So what do service providers need to do to ensure they can play a role in supporting a future drone-connected infrastructure?
Getting drone ready
The safe provision of BVLOS flights requires guaranteed service levels for communication—from a cellular network point of view, that means being able to assure dedicated SLAs in licensed spectrum. Achieving this guarantee means service providers have to make their networks and its data available to drone operators.
While cellular networks can handle BVLOS flights, this may not always be the case all of the time, especially as cellular networks are primarily designed for ground operations. Drone operators therefore need to be able to communicate with service providers in order to know where it is safe for drones to operate. But it doesn’t stop there. Even if service providers share this critical network operation, it’s of little value if their cellular networks aren’t optimized for flight operations. Indeed, network optimization becomes especially important with the advent of network slicing—while network slices will prove to be a significant enabler for drone applications, operators will only guarantee its success if they can adequately manage and optimize individual slices, according to their applications. From a drone perspective, that means ensuring that network slices are optimized in the right way to be able to handle BVLOS flight traffic in different scenarios, for example, three-dimensional corridors where drones can safely be controlled.
Going one step further, once service providers have optimized their networks and shared information with drone controllers for safe drone flight operation, they also need to guarantee connectivity as drones move between cell towers. This is especially important as any disruption to connectivity handover from one cell tower to the other could have dire consequences for public safety.
Turning the drone future into reality
While a drone-connected future may still seem far away, there is an increasing number of communication service providers laying the groundwork today to make our skies as busy as our roads.
End-to-end solutions such as TEOCO’s Airborne RF, can help the largest telco companies manage the entire drone service. One example is UK operator, BT which is leading on ‘Project XCelerate’. Leveraging its EE mobile network, BT will ensure that a safe commercial drone corridor can be established with optimal mobile coverage at low altitude. BT will provide the critical communications required for BVLOS environments such as GPS location, remote identification, command and control, redundant geo-awareness, and live notifications sent directly to drones in-flight. BT will seek to provide the assurance that commercial cellular networks are able to support such services at altitude, including both control of the drone and other services, such as 3D mapping and HD video streaming. BT’s drone detection capability will also play an important role in enabling safe BVLOS drone flights at scale by bringing ‘single-point situational awareness’ to managed airspace. By clearly distinguishing between known, authorized operations, and unknown, potential threats, effective responses can be quickly executed without disrupting existing authorized activities.
Several mobile operators, such as BT, are committed towards a drone connected future. This is made possible in part by ensuring they are leveraging the right tools such as Airborne RF, which provides critical information between drone operators and aviation systems to ensure safe BVLOS operations and UTM. In doing so, mobile operators are able to assess flight paths to ensure drones can maintain adequate and continuous cellular coverage for every flight, notify drone operators if there is any risk of loss in communication, and signal performance along the entire flight path. In addition, mobile operators can also accurately determine information for the safest flight path with the lowest population density before each flight.
Automated drone technology has the capacity to transform how we live our lives, and bring about significant efficiencies. Operators have a huge opportunity in front of them to support the future of drones and already have the supporting infrastructure required in place. However, their cellular networks alone won’t be enough to make the drone dream happen, they will need the right tools to meet drone connectivity requirements to ensure drone operators can deliver on the much-anticipated applications set to take the skies in the coming years.