Drones: out of sight, top of mind for telcos


Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Thomas Neubauer, VP of Innovation and Business Development at Teoco, urges operators to consider the potential of BVOS drones.

Operators may not yet be experts in aviation, but they need to start thinking about managing and monetising the skies.

Today, with few exceptions, regulations only allow drone flight if the pilot can see the drone—in many ways, it’s not too dissimilar from model aircraft or drone enthusiasts you might spot in the park. If the aircraft disappears from view it’s not only illegal, but the pilot is likely to panic as its expensive toy may be lost forever.

While flight restrictions may be fine for drone enthusiasts, what about the companies that want drones to be part of their future business models? Line of sight is no good if you want to make a delivery across a city, move medical supplies or samples between health care facilities, or monitor crops.

This law is changing, though slowly. Regulators are now starting to partner with drone manufacturers, allowing limited testing of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights. Telcos that haven’t already taken close notice of the potential of BVLOS flights should do so. Drones could be a great opportunity for operators with a country-wide deployment of cell towers. In fact, drones could be the most important ‘Thing’ in the IoT.

The future of drone flight

Automated BVLOS flights open up many opportunities—while most will immediately think of faster home deliveries for their fast food, there are other ways that drones can be useful.

These include medical use, such as shipping samples from hospitals to labs safely, or even transporting organs for transplant from one hospital to another. Disaster response and search and rescue is another potential use case, as is agriculture, where predicting potential yields is vital to keep farms profitable. Even construction and infrastructure development could be improved by drone use, though this will depend on more sophisticated and nimble drones.

All of these are impossible if a pilot has to be in line of sight, making BVLOS a necessity if this future is to be fully realised. But the regulators are rightly worried about what this means. With no manual pilot, how can the safety of regular air traffic be guaranteed? How can a drone be communicated with if a last-minute change to its flight plan is needed? Essentially, regulators such as the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), want to permit the use of drones but without any risk to the public.

To achieve this aim and to overcome the fact that pilots do not always have direct visibility of UAVs, every BVLOS flight requires a continuous digital connection. This connectivity is needed to guarantee safety, whether the flightpath of a UAV is automated, or flown by an operator.

What is the opportunity for telcos?

The provision of this connectivity is an exciting opportunity for telcos. For safe operation and to help to mitigate risks, BVLOS will require guaranteed service levels for communication. This means that, for large commercial deployments of drones, cellular networks are in an ideal position to help—they can deliver the communication mechanisms for command and control of drones, assuring dedicated SLAs in licensed spectrum. The infrastructure, in the form of cellular networks, already exists and is affordable. There are alternatives, such as satellite communications, but these don’t meet requirements for drones, in terms of low latency, cost, weight, bandwidth and energy consumption.

Why not use the same comms that regular manned flights use? Terrestrial analogue signals or radar are not effective, or in most cases, just not working effectively at lower altitudes to meet the requirements of drones.

Unfortunately for telcos it’s not as simple as making their networks and the respective data available for use for BVLOS flight operations and aviation management systems. While existing cellular networks are able to handle BVLOS flight management, it is not a given that this is the case everywhere. Cellular networks are designed and optimised for ground operation. Thus, as a first step the aviation management systems need to know from the telcos where the cellular network is good enough for safe drone operation. Secondly, the network needs to be optimised for more flight operations in three-dimensional corridors where drones can safely be controlled.

There also needs to be a guaranteed connection as the drone moves, handing over between cells where necessary. A lost connection for a consumer is an annoyance, but for a fast-moving drone it means jeopardising public safety. The rollout of 5G and the introduction of network slices to guarantee a steady and dedicated connection will be important to ensure that drones can be safely controlled, but only if operators have the tools to manage and optimise these slices safely.

BVLOS means that telcos can provide the communications necessary to make our skies as busy as our roads—or perhaps busier, as many drones could replace trips that are currently made by road. It’s rare that telcos find themselves in a position to provide connectivity to a completely new industry vertical. They should grab at the opportunity and start planning now for a future where the sky is full as full of literal traffic as it is of mobile traffic.

Thomas is Vice President of Business Development & Innovations for TEOCO. Thomas was the founder and Managing Director of Symena, acquired by AIRCOM. AIRCOM was subsequently acquired by TEOCO in December 2013. Thomas Neubauer has more than eleven years of experience with automatic cell planning (ACP) and mathematical optimization. He holds a Ph.D. in telecommunications engineering from the Vienna University of Technology.

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