Why are Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) investing in drones?  

Source: Vodafone

The Global UTM Association (GUTMA) recently hosted a webinar to take a look at the topic of MNO investment in the world of drones. This online format replaced the live event originally planned in conjunction with Mobile World Congress. This is the second of six webinars which we will provide a short synopsis of over the next couple of months.

Four speakers representing MNOs from Europe and the United States addressed this topic. Starting with Verizon Skyward, and their CEO – Mariah Scott who is also part of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, the role of drones takes three forms. Drones for the network, drones as the network and drones on the network.

The first category represents the use of drones to inspect and maintain the network infrastructure. Skyward employees act as the pilots. In the second category, drones can be deployed in the case of critical infrastructure damage. A drone operations vehicle is deployed using 4G/5G in a command and control function to support interim communications requirements. The third topic is a future vision (5-year plan).  This includes BVLOS, one operator controlling many drones, Air Taxi support, Autonomous BVLOS support, 5G and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) for aviation. Skyward plans to work with enterprise customers who can transform their business through the use of drones.

The second speaker was from Swisscom, who is using LTE (4G) for the command and control function in very low level (VLL) airspace. They are working with skyguide to research different options to consider ground risk and where it is safe to fly by leveraging the mobile network. Additionally, they have implemented Swiss U-Space (SUSI).

The third speaker represented Turkcell. They have launched a program called Dronecell, that provides temporary 4.5G mobile coverage in the case of natural disasters where the drones are actually working as flying base stations. The short-term coverage can also be used in search and rescue operations and hard to reach locations. They are also working on a 5G drone project that will incorporate the use of  artificial intelligence to enable object detection and tracking to include people, animals and facial recognition. This will also include log analytics for anomaly detection and error prediction.

The final speaker represented Vodafone and discussed their Connected Drone Program. The mobile network is needed to allow for BVLOS functionality and Vodafone is already working in Spain, Germany and the UK on these topics. One project worth highlighting is a solution for dynamic no-fly zones enabled via their Radio Positioning Service (RPS) as an alternative to traditional GPS using a Vodafone provided 4G modem and SIM card. The Connected Drone section of their website highlights more programs currently underway.

One thing that is a key differentiator through the incorporation of mobile networks to drone connectivity is security. Security is inherent in mobile networks and as the MNOs build IoT-oriented connectivity solutions there is even more focus on security from the network vs. the device. These solutions could be expanded to address drones as similar challenges are present.

Air Traffic Management had the opportunity to pose three questions to the panelists of this webinar and here’s what we learned.

Q – Do you envision telecoms offering UTM specific services – connectivity, security, managed solutions specifically for this market?

A – The general consensus was yes, but the ‘how’ varied across the respondents. Skyward is already doing so with two offers. Drone operators can access the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) through its online flight planning tool. Additionally, they are offering Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) to provide short-term mobile connectivity to first responders via drones providing the network functionality. Swisscom felt that specific industry solutions were required, not just a general service. Looking toward the path of telecoms providing industry specific solutions, this would be the same for providing a drone service such as infrastructure inspection and maintenance. Turkcell saw a wealth of opportunities for telecoms in this space. Topics such as licensed and encrypted secure connections, video transfer, coverage for BVLOS operations and command and control functionality.

Q – Are you already working with drone manufactures to incorporate SIM cards in their products?

A – This answer varied across the respondents from yes to we offer technology expertise and the manufacturers decide how best to implement to we are still analysing this option.

Q – How can telecoms create a UTM specific revenue stream?

A – Overall the responses focused around solving the problems of specific industries. In general, this would include connectivity, operations management and access to controlled airspace. Security was also a topic, along with providing adequate bandwidth for video-based functionality.

It’s exciting to see these two industries coming together across many large MNOs. Following the path of IoT services, I believe there are great opportunities for telecoms to impact the acceleration of the use of drones in daily operations of many enterprises.

1 Comment

  1. It is exciting to see this interest in NMOs for drone operations and lower airspace.
    At Flight Data Technologies Inc., we believe that drone detection should be automatic and not require any specific device on board. We are open to work with NMO to offer them to integrate our new automatic monitoring technology to lower airspace. It automatically detects and follows any flying object to lower airspace up to 28,000 feet.

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