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Will Wireless Technology Enable the Future of Drones?

From cell phones to drones, 5G connectivity is changing the game

September 8, 2017

Every time you step onto an airplane, you fully expect to get from point A to point B. Despite the complexity of the systems designed to get you safely to your destination, you probably take them for granted. Safety may be an afterthought for airline passengers, but aviation authorities around the world have made it their top priority.

As a result, air traffic control systems and technologies that support the aviation framework function reliably and consistently to ensure safe flight. Radar, air traffic control systems, and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) transponders all make sure that millions of people arrive safely at their destinations every day.

While the pieces are still moving into place, the birth of a different type of aviation is making its debut. Experts anticipate the future of drone technology to be far-reaching and disruptive to many of our foundational industries, changing the face of transportation, agriculture, infrastructure inspection, mining, and disaster response.
Tracking technologies like PrecisionHawk’s LATAS platform, which can be built into existing flight apps used by both hobbyists and enterprise operators, simultaneously address safety and scalability by operating via the cellular network.
Communicate to Integrate

The FAA estimates the use of hobby drones will more than triple from about 1.1 million vehicles in 2016 to more than 3.5 million by 2021. The agency also estimates that there could be as many as 1.6 million drones used for business and research purposes by 2021.

As the national airspace suddenly becomes increasingly shared among hobby and commercial drones and traditional manned aviation, companies and researchers race to find a solution for traffic management. With drone regulations around the world far from settled, little has been done to actively integrate drones into the airspace.

Not to mention that last year, the FAA said pilots reported nearly 1,800 drone sightings close to airplanes and airports. “Some basic math shows that a [manned aircraft] pilot has less than 10 seconds to recognize the drone, decide what to do, and maneuver the aircraft,” says Christian Ramsey, president of uAvionix, a company based in Palo Alto, California, that makes lightweight ADS-B transponders for UAVs. “An FAA Advisory Circular (90-48D) shows that it takes a pilot 12.5 seconds to perform those actions. I don’t believe that all of those sightings were ‘near misses,’ but any near miss is essentially luck, because the pilot simply doesn’t have time to react.”

ADS-B technology seems to be the go-to when discussing how drones can connect to air traffic control. Companies like uAvionix anticipate the market moving in this direction and have started rolling out ultra-lightweight, low-cost ADS-B transponders and transceivers for UAS that provide location and positioning information to safeguard against mid-air collisions.

According to Ramsey, small ADS-B transceivers can help establish two-way communication between unmanned and manned aircraft. The major advantage to this approach is that it is compatible with technology currently used by manned aviation in countries around the world.

“ADS-B is an international standard and is being adopted across the globe,” Ramsey says. “There has been a lot of focus in the detect-and-avoid (DAA) industry on drones being able to detect nearby manned aircraft. ADS-B does that. But almost more importantly, it has the ability to allow manned aircraft to electronically ‘see’ the drone — right in the cockpit — with equipment they already have.”

Critics of ADS-B are quick to point out that the number of connections expected from drones could surpass the safe number of connected devices to the air traffic control (ATC) system at any given time. Ramsey says ADS-B is just one layer of technology required to enable advanced drone operations. “We envision a three-step approach: reduce the number of drones with ADS-B, reduce the power, and reduce the number of transmissions,” Ramsey says. “But even with all of these concepts, ADS-B is not a ‘tracking’ technology — it is a safety technology — which still leaves a need for a tracking technology like LTE/5G.”
ADS-B can help unmanned and manned aircraft recognize one another and stay out of each other’s flight paths. But it is not a single-shot solution for UAS traffic.
More than just phone calls

Ramsey and others believe that cellular networks will be a key component of any successful UAV tracking solution. The existing cellular networks already operate and manage data on a massive scale. By building off this system, drone operators would have a safety net as robust as the one that protects traditional aviation.

“Every time you fly a drone, you should be able to access a number of services that are widely accepted to be reliable and safe, in the same way the manned aviation industry relies on air traffic control,” said Tyler Collins, VP of airspace services at PrecisionHawk, a drone platform provider. “Cellular has the scalability, the infrastructure, and the security to act as that connection foundation for millions of devices at once, including drones.”

Companies both in and out of the commercial drone industry, such as PrecisionHawk and Verizon, are actively testing cellular-network capabilities with various UAS Traffic Management (UTM) projects to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones. But the work is in its infancy.

“Verizon has done a good job of critically thinking about how the [cellular] network can be used to enable the commercial drone industry, and we’re working with a number of companies to test that,” says Dave Famolari, director of Verizon Ventures.

PrecisionHawk’s LATAS platform relies on cellular connectivity to transmit locational information about the drone to its tracking software. LATAS then feeds information back to the drone about hazards like manned aircraft and no-fly zones. Even though it’s further along than other systems, LATAS still isn’t a mature technology.

Advanced safety systems will certainly help unlock many use cases for the commercial drone industry. However, the acceptance of cellular capabilities for communication redundancy and fast data transfer could make it a valuable piece of enabling technology. But the cellular network would need to be more robust than what we’re currently using. That’s where 5G comes in.

The promise of 5G

Technology company Cisco Systems, the leading maker of networking hardware, estimates that by 2021, there will be 12 billion connected devices globally and that approximately one-quarter of them will be cars, aerial drones, industrial robots, and other types of machines.

Today, 4G speeds in the U.S. typically max out at about 1 gigabit (125MB) per second under ideal conditions; 5G will dial that up to 10 gigabits per second.

“The industry already knows how to work with 4G, and it could enable a number of commercial use cases,” says Famolari. The current 4G network provides nationwide coverage and many low-cost chipsets are readily available. But he thinks 5G will significantly add to commercial drone operations over the coming years. Drones and connectivity were a hot topic at this year´s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

As you might expect, cellular network technology powerhouses like Qualcomm and Samsung were there — but so was drone-maker DJI. As the communications industry rushes to connect society, the increasing data-transfer rates make devices like self-driving cars and autonomous drones possible. The tech will enable those vehicles to analyze their surroundings in real time and avoid collisions. “One of the many benefits we can expect from a low-latency network is that drones will be able to make sense of the world around them — which means a safer airspace,” says Collins. “When drones have an awareness of their environment, they will be capable of learning and adapting to sudden changes while flying.”

The hope would be to develop a “universal” traffic management system to handle both manned and unmanned air traffic. Such a unified framework at scale would require cell carriers to collaborate with standards bodies and regulators like the FAA and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure their networks can be approved for use in aviation.

But the coverage and technology to makes this happen just isn’t there ― yet. “What I would like to see is a number of cellular companies come together and work toward a common framework, a common standard for how cellular can help enable the commercial drone industry,” Famolari says. He thinks cellular networks can be part of a safe, reliable air traffic solution.

In addition, more work has to be done to optimize networks to handle devices communicating with multiple cell towers. For example, your smartphone may transfer data with up to three towers during a typical phone conversation. The network can easily route that data. But, as PrecisionHawk discovered while testing cellular modules at altitudes up to 3,000 feet, a drone can sometimes communicate with 10 or more towers at once. The current network configuration isn’t designed to manage that many simultaneous connections. A 5G network with this capability will open up the possibilities for a future where machines talk to machines and make dynamic decisions based on transferred information.
A high-flying future

The effects of a 5G network on the drone industry will reach far beyond drone safety. As insurance companies and first responders begin to add drones to their strategic plans, realtime data collection and transfer is becoming more important. While a farmer might be able to wait a few hours to get a map that shows where to add nitrogen to a cornfield, emergency response agencies need this information immediately in order to save lives. The ability to use a drone as an internet hotspot to transmit images or video to the cloud could be invaluable.

5G technology also has the potential to bring a new dimension of reliability, security, and coverage to large-scale drone operations. While an operator today is limited by transmitter line-of-sight, researchers are exploring methods to use cellular networks to control drones flying beyond the range of the radio alone. The ability to link a transmitter to the cell network could enable safe, routine operations far beyond a pilot’s visual line-of-sight (BVLOS).

“Airborne connectivity through cellular networks should allow us to monitor drone performance and location status, enabling traffic deconfliction and efficient use of the airspace system,” says Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Consortium (NGAT).

But are the networks reliable enough to satisfy FAA risk tolerance for BVLOS operations? Snyder says research under the FAA’s ASSURE UAS Center of Excellence and with industry partners at NGAT continues to study how cellular, satellite, and traditional aviation communication networks can support the broad integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. This could help support protocols that increase the number of operators able to fly BVLOS using the cellular network as the communications backbone.

“Continuous connectivity not only makes drone operators more effective, but provides air traffic managers and other airspace users higher confidence in shared airspace,” Snyder says. The birth of a 5G network with lower latency and higher bandwidth could also get the industry to widespread BVLOS much faster, alleviating the reliability concerns plaguing 4G.

With time, fast, low-latency connectivity will turn drones into a network of smart vehicles present in our everyday lives, operating over wide-open spaces, in our cities, and out at sea.

Note: A version of this appeared in the July/August issue of Drone360 magazine.

Lia Reich is the vice president of communications and marketing at PrecisionHawk and a member of the Drone360 editorial advisory board. You can follow her on Twitter @LiaReich.
Featured image: Kellie Jaeger