5G drones: everything you need to know

5G drone being used for delivery.
(Image credit: Manna / Flipdish)

5G drones will be one of the hottest technologies of 2021. In November 2020, Vodafone and Ericsson successfully tested sky corridors for 5G drones at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany, as the two companies moved a step closer to enabling real-world use cases for 5G drones.

And at the end of 2020, BT took a step further, announcing the UK’s first commercial drone corridor, working alongside a new consortium of companies and organisations with a view to delivering 5G use cases for drone technology. 

"As drone numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to safely integrate commercial drones."

Gerry McQuade, BT.

“As drone numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to safely integrate commercial drones into global airspace alongside manned aviation,” said Gerry McQuade, CEO of BT’s enterprise unit. “In showing how drones can deliver improved, potentially life-saving services to the public, we’re aiming to accelerate the adoption of fully automated drones in unrestricted UK airspace in a safe and responsible way.”

BT and drone partners

BT,  alongside partners such as Altitude Angel and a number of UK tech start-ups, announced that it has been selected by UK Research and Innovation to deliver Project XCelerate. Project XCelerate will make up part of the wider Future Flight Challenge project, with the aim of establishing the UK’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace, located south of Reading, Berkshire.

The project will conduct flight trials along an 8km-long corridor during the summer of 2021, and it hopes to demonstrate how drones can operate safely in the same airspace as manned aviation. 

"5G networks will ensure commercial drones remain connected for greater situational awareness, accurate positioning and to avoid collisions."

Gerry McQuade, BT.

“BT’s role in the consortium is to bring world-leading drone expertise together and to provide the secure and resilient mobile network connectivity, as well as our drone detection services,” McQuade said. “5G networks will ensure commercial drones remain connected for greater situational awareness, accurate positioning and to avoid collisions – ensuring that they can be operated safely and responsibly across UK skies.”

Beyond visual line of sight

Other companies included in the Project include Dronecloud, HeroTech8, Skyports, and DroneStream. And together they will aim to develop a system where drones can operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

“The Project’s ambitions are clear, we are making the technology, safety and commercial cases for delivering real-world BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) drone flights, at scale,” said Jan Domaradzki, Dronecloud CEO. “Dronecloud will help integrate the complex components required into a centralised, command and control platform for Enterprise Drone Fleets.”

The key use cases will include the use of drones to assist the emergency services, to carry out 3D mapping, to aid the police force, to undergo safety inspections, and to make deliveries.

“In Project XCelerate, we will be able to contribute our expertise and experience of flying BVLOS missions and benefit from the means to operate in non-segregated airspace."

uncan Walker, Skyports.

“Skyports is already working with the NHS in Scotland to assist with the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic by transporting medical supplies and samples between healthcare sites and integrating our drone delivery service into their supply chain, “ explained Duncan Walker, Skyports CEO.

The Project will operate on the EE mobile network – which also delivers the Emergency Services Network (ESN) in the UK - which will enable BT to provide the communications for BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) environments, such as GPS location and remote identification, command and control, redundant geo-awareness, and live notifications (NOTAMs) sent directly to drones in-flight.

5G drones - tracking to within 10cm

Vodafone and Sapcorda, a global navigation company, have successfully trialled new precision positioning technology to remotely track a vehicle to within just 10 centimetres of its location. To achieve this, Vodafone used Precise Point Positioning-Real Time Kinematics (PPP-RTK) technology, which is the latest generation of GNSS correction services, and was able to track the exact lane that vehicles were travelling in during a 100km journey. 

Vodafone cars shot.

(Image credit: Vodafone.)

Vodafone was able to provide accurate locations for IoT-enabled vehicles, machinery and devices, using Sapcorda’s network of Global Navigation System Service (GNSS) receivers and augmentation technology. This technology is able to improve accuracy from 3m to 10cm by correcting for things like the curvature of the earth, atmospheric delays and the time differences of global positioning satellites. 

This precise positioning service from Vodafone will be a worthwhile addition to its ‘Telco as a Service’ (TaaS) model, and will be a vital ingredient in safely rolling out new 5G services. And according to Vodafone, “Pinpoint accuracy is critical to the acceptance and mass adoption of autonomous vehicles not just on the road but in factories, airports, dockyards and any site where machines are in motion”. 

AI-enabled platforms for 5G drones 

Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. has unveiled the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform, the world’s first drone platform and reference design to offer both 5G and AI capabilities. This follows the success of Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars as a key breakthrough for unmanned flight powered by the Qualcomm Flight Platform, and will help accelerate development for commercial, enterprise, and industrial 5G drones.


(Image credit: Qualcomm)

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform is powered by the Qualcomm QRB5165 processor and builds upon Qualcomm Technologies’ latest IoT offerings, delivering a solution which will drive the next generation of high-performance, low-power, 5G drones. 

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform will support evolving applications and new 5G use cases in sectors including film and entertainment, security and emergency response, delivery, defence, inspection, and mapping. Indeed, Qualcomm is a primary driver of global 5G technology proliferation and has acted as a catalyst and visionary in enabling 5G to scale and revolutionise the robotics and drone industry. 

5G drones - supplying 5G connectivity

Elsewhere, 5G drones are now flying over California, and may soon be delivering 5G access to remote areas of Hawai’i, whilst other companies are looking to use smaller 5G drones for deliveries, site maintenance, traffic monitoring, and beyond.

First, we'll take a look at the HAWK30, which boasts a massive 260 foot wingspan, and undertook its inaugural test flight from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) in California in September 2019.

The HAWK30 is a solar-powered 5G drone – also known as a high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) – that could soon be sweeping through our skies, flying non-stop for six months at a time, whilst beaming 5G back to Earth. And the HAWK30 drone has the ability to fly above jet traffic at 65,000 to 80,000 feet, providing wireless services to areas where cell phone service is currently unavailable.

The project is currently being developed by The University of Hawai’i (UH), in partnership with SoftBank, AeroVironment, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google). And the tech connection doesn’t stop there, because - if approved - the HAWK30 will eventually move from California to Hawaii’s Lanai island for its final testing, an island which is currently 97% owned by Larry Ellison (Founder and Chairman of Oracle).  

Junichi Miyakawa, Representative Director & CTO of SoftBank Corp., and also President & CEO of HAPSMobile, said: 

“We’re very pleased that HAWK30’s first test flight was a success. It was an exciting journey to get to this point. We were able to see HAWK30 take flight in front of us and witness its grace in the air. We’re extremely grateful to NASA for their guidance and operational support. While this successful test flight represents just the first step, we’re moving forward with tests in the stratosphere and long flight duration tests lasting several months up to a half year. HAPSMobile will continue to work toward its goal of bridging the world’s digital divide and revolutionizing mobile networks by leveraging HAPS.”

Unmanned and full of fans

HAWK30 is an unmanned, Iow-speed, high-altitude, solar-powered aircraft propelled by 10 electric fans, and is designed to carry 56 communications relays. Flying at altitudes of 65,000 to 80,000 feet, it is hoped that the HAWK30 will deliver next generation mobile connections to the world’s most inaccessible areas.

“The purpose of the HAWK30 program is to develop new airborne overhead 5G communication, which would provide strong wireless service over a large area, including deep valleys, remote lands, and over the ocean. The HAWK30 program is rooted in a prior—generation NASA “Helios” program tested off Kaua‘i approximately 20 years ago. Watershed conservation and agricultural development are two services to be provided by the HAWK30 program, along with personal cell and business services enhanced by 5G service.”

The HAPSmobile system will spread 5G further, with lower power needs

The HAPSmobile system will spread 5G further, with lower power needs (Image credit: HAPSmobile)

Tensions mount around 5G drones

The solar-powered HAWK30 is designed to operate up to six months in a single flight, with each airplane providing continuous service, covering approximately 150 square miles on the land. For the proposed project, two airplanes will be utilized, and will remain centered above Lana‘i airspace.

However, local tensions have been heightened, following health scares surrounding 5G dangers. And a campaign is building to ground the project, amidst fears that it may cause harm to the local community of Lana’i. These fears have been addressed head on by the HAWK30 project, though, with documentation claiming that: “The way HAWK30 projects cellular radio waves downward to the surface of the earth, with only one Watt of transmit power required to cover a surface area equal to the entire island of Lana‘i, compared to the 8 to 10 Kilowatts of power it would take to power normal cell towers transmitting horizontally. This low wattage reduces or eliminates health concerns associated with powerful radio transmission.”

5G drones for delivery and beyond

5G drone being used for delivery.

(Image credit: Manna / Flipdish)

As well as the huge drones that could deliver 5G services, there are also much smaller devices, which companies hope to use for deliveries, and monitoring, and Verizon wants to be the first telco to use 5G to enable a million connected drone flights to take place. That's some ambition, but the idea has some backing since Verizon bought Skyward in 2016 - an organisation specializing in drone operations for businesses and enterprises. 

Skyward provides drone operators with detailed mapping while operating industrial drones plus there are also tools for overseeing multiple drones in action and, basically, work out what needs to go where. 

Verizon's plan is to enable as many drones as possible to be connected and to transmit video footage in real-time but also to relay back other intelligence such as levels of stock in a warehouse situation

“We've already started testing connected drones on 5G on the Verizon Network,” said Mariah Scott, president of Skyward. “We knew early on that connectivity would be critical for drones. And now 5G Ultra Wideband will usher in a new era in aviation, where we connect and integrate drones into the national airspace.” 

Elsewhere, Irish start-up Manna has partnered with Cubic Telecom to fly delivery 5G-connected delivery drones in Ireland and England by the end of 2020. It is currently testing the tech at a base in Pontypool, Wales. 

The intention is for the drones to charge $1 per delivery. Each drone will have three batteries on board, meaning that they can make five deliveries per hour. Even so, that doesn't seem that profitable to us, but Manna believes that by keeping the drones flying as much as possible it can make it work. 

Dan Oliver

Dan is a British journalist with 20 years of experience in the design and tech sectors, producing content for the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Dell and The Sunday Times. In 2012 he helped launch the world's number one design blog, Creative Bloq. Dan is now editor-in-chief at 5Gradar, where he oversees news, insight and reviews, providing an invaluable resource for anyone looking to stay up-to-date with the key issues facing 5G.