Skyward in motion:  providing end-to-end drone support 

ATM recently had the opportunity to speak with Skyward to better understand their portfolio of solutions. Although many people know that Skyward is a part of Verizon, you may not know that it started as a venture-backed startup looking to bring parallels from aviation to drones. Originally looking to provide a common operating picture to include a digital flight log, airspace map and operations control. By providing a consistent communication layer for drones, the steps to enable BVLOS had begun.  Interestingly when this was their mission, they actually wanted to become the ‘Verizon of drones’ and three years ago Verizon acquired them.

Today their mission has evolved, although support of BVLOS is still very much at the core of what they do. Some of the key solutions along the path to BVLOS include an approval workflow, automated flight mode, airspace intelligence and ultimately BVLOS flight support.

Approval workflows allow for drone operations organisations to set up pre-planned activities to request and approve online. There can be multiple operations serving multiple locations at different risk levels. Based on prior flights, activities can be planned for the future to maintain required compliance.

Automated flight mode provides risk assessments by operation. Based on a compliance checklist, pre-planned missions and surveys can be conducted with automated processes. Pre-programmed flights would likely focus on lower risk operations around gathering imagery, videos and data.

Airspace intelligence is focused on maps to simplify low altitude flights in complex airspace. This can include restricted areas, LAANC-enabled controlled areas, special flight rules, airport runways etc. as some examples.

BVLOS flights have been enabled via a temporary FAA waiver in order to support Verizon during the Big Hollow Wildfire. Flights were conducted 24 hours per day without any pilot or observer on site. This is normally required under the FAA waiver program. The drones were surveying the wildfire zone to determine the status of the Verizon telecommunications infrastructure in this area. The pilots in charge of these drones were located 1,600 miles away. The fire movement was monitored, and the first responders were able to keep their communications online. And of course, maintaining the safety of those working in these areas.

Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) enables drones equipped with this connectivity to send and receive payload data via the Verizon mobile network. Today this can be used to support telemetry, drone command and control, Remote ID and LAANC approval. There’s been a great of discussion surrounding the need for 5G. When and how is this a requirement? During our discussion the step-up to 5G surrounded the need for centralised detect and avoid maneuvers and bandwidth-intensive payload data distribution.

The topic of security was also discussed. There is already security built-in with the Verizon network and LTE has a high-level of security inherently built in. This is required for Remote ID support. But what about the data the drone is ‘seeing’. On one had there is the security of the assets such as nuclear power plants and energy facilities. This data requires encryption during the delivery process. Then there is the privacy of the general public. We discussed if there was a need for some type of regulation regarding individuals or personal property that could be captured in the background of a drone’s inspection tasks. The opinion was that this would fall under the current view regarding cell phones. The laws that are already in place to protect use of materials without the owner’s consent would be sufficient.

Looking at the evolution of Skyward under the Verizon umbrella, helps to understand the direction we see enterprise drones moving in the future when managed in conjunction with a telecommunications network.  Many possibilities for the future.