Do drones need their own networks?

Drone traffic is growing, this is nothing new.  As drone traffic grows we have to consider not only the increase in the number of drones, but the types of drones and their purpose.  We have hobby drones, along with enterprise drones carrying out activities such as the inspection of physical infrastructure and search and rescue activities.  Then we have cargo drones. Today they are delivering small purchases and medical samples, but tomorrow with the onset of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) this cargo grows in size and aids in the movement of packages between delivery installations of organisations such as FedEx, UPS, etc.  Last but now least, will be air taxis and the like that are carrying people in an autonomous fashion.  That’s a lot of traffic to integrate in a safe manner.  The airspace is getting more and more crowded, how do we do this safely?

One way to move forward is with a communications network dedicated to drone flight operations.  We can already see examples of this happening in the United States.  In June of this year, the State of North Dakota announced its intent to build a statewide network to support unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations. Thales will work together with a consortium of North Dakota based companies (Appareo and Botlink) and other global services providers (Airspace Link and others) as the systems integrator and engineering services provider. The consortium will develop the State’s “system-of-systems” comprised of communications and surveillance infrastructure, backhaul data network, mission-critical network operations center  and UAS platforms and services.  The network will enable statewide beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights.  In order to move into the functionality of transporting people or cargo a longer distance, BVLOS is a mandate.

New York is another example how a network dedicated to drone flight operations can be used to migrate drone traffic safely into manned airspace.  The U-SAFE program is a 50-mile UTM Corridor that allows air traffic management and sensor companies to test their systems in support of global UTM standards.  This ultimately leads to a fully instrumented, BVLOS and autonomous unmanned operations.   The program includes NASA and the FAA, along with various industry partners.

These are only two examples of activities where regional governments have taken the topic of drones into their own hands. Over the last few months, ATM also discussed the integration of mobile network operators into these scenarios to utilise existing LTE and/or 5G infrastructure for drone communications to enable BVLOS and integrate into air traffic management operations.  Whether it is the integration of existing networks or the deployment of new networks managed by a state or organisation supporting specific testing purposes these are important steps forward to bring drone traffic of all shapes and sizes safely into manned airspace.