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How cellular will enable the growth of the commercial drone market

(Image credit: Image Credit: Pixabay / Pexels)

Aerial drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have been around for many decades - predominantly in military settings - but it was not until the 1990s that drones as we know them began to take flight. Today, industrial and commercial use cases for aerial drones typically include delivery of goods, infrastructure inspection and maintenance, surveying and mapping, and asset inventory management.

One of the main catalysts for the increase in drone usage has been the advancements in communication networks that allow for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) flight. This is primarily due to the current use, but also commercial viability of 4G and the future possibilities that 5G will bring. Cellular provides a resilient and secure solution for drone connectivity as it is standardized, scalable and quick to deploy.

Building a foundation for the commercial drones industry through 4G

At a time where organizations feel the pressure to be more efficient, innovative and ambitious with their services, drones offer these businesses a unique opportunity. The global market for commercial drones is growing at a rapid pace, having reached $6.5 billion in 2020 [1] and expected to grow to $34.5 billion by 2026. In fact, UPS and CVS recently partnered together to provide the first aerial drone prescription service [2], delivering medication to retirement villages in areas around the US.

Drone technology is dependent on a wide range of technologies, including wireless connectivity, sensory systems, power storage and in some cases Artificial Intelligence (AI). As many drones use a BVLOS system, wireless communication is critical to allow for communication over a great distance, discarding the use of lower power transmitters. Military drones typically use dedicated radio communications through satellites or large mobile antenna systems, however commercial organizations have limited access to this, partly due to setup and management costs. Therefore, cellular connectivity has provided the foundations for affordable, commercial drone communication.

With the small number of commercial drones that are currently being used, 4G delivers the connectivity speeds, resilience and latency that is sufficient to support network requirements such as video feeds, location and route management. However, as more drones are deployed over the coming years, there will be a need for more sophisticated network capabilities to manage demand and more stringent regulatory requirements. Although currently it is not widely available today, 5G will become a key enabler for this growth in commercial drone usage.

Expansion of 5G

5G will ultimately deliver the higher bandwidth, ultra-low latency capabilities (helping with issues such as collision avoidance) and higher levels of security and safety that regulators will demand as drone usage increases.

At present, 5G is not widely available across the world and in many countries, coverage only includes major cities. With the majority of commercial drone use cases currently operating outside of built up areas, we cannot expect to see the full benefits that 5G is forecast to bring until rural coverage improves significantly.

The commercial drones industry has the potential to benefit from the expansion of 5G, but organizations will need to consider current and upcoming government legislation if they are to streamline their services. Both 5G and drone technology have created a symbiotic relationship by constantly developing, and businesses should be evolving and testing their own capabilities to keep up with new and ever increasing sophisticated technologies as 5G coverage improves.

The importance of regulation and legislation

As commercial drone usage increases over the coming years, we will likely see several thousand drones roaming the skies. This will present a range of issues including safety, privacy and security. The escalation of drone usage will bring stricter regulations to minimize the security and safety risks of large, heavy objects flying overhead in a potentially shared airspace.

The use of a BVLOS system also presents concerns for government officials. Safety concerns include drone on drone, drone on structure, drone on aircraft or even drone on human collisions. There are also potential security issues to consider, such as drones being hacked or stolen and used for unwanted reasons. Additionally, with commercial drones flying above us fitted with high-res cameras, people will want to understand how this data is being managed, how it fits with data protection legislation and any issues they should be aware of. This has become more prevalent over the last few years with consumer incidences making negative headlines for drones usage, such as the recent Frankfurt airport disruptions in 2020 [3], or the drones sightings at Gatwick airport that affected tens of thousands of passengers in the run up to Christmas 2018 [4].

Regulation is already being developed across the world [5]. Canada has mandated that all pilots must have a drone pilot certificate, with no allowance of BVLOS and designated ‘No Drone Zones’, marking no distinction between commercial or consumer aerial drone usage. In the UK, new legislation is being debated that will mandate that all active UAVs will need to transmit their location services for safety purposes. Commercial drone users will also have to be granted permission from OFCOM and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to show they have met the government’s conditions for operating.

Technology will play an important role in managing these challenges. With capabilities such as SIM density mapping that aids the management and control of UAVs. Geo-fencing will automatically prevent drones from flying into protected areas and network based geo-location zones. Lastly, electronic conspicuity will allow automatic identification of all airspace users.

Mobile operators are already adapting to the future restrictions. Technological breakthroughs such as the creation of flight paths for industrial drones, will enable drones to avoid geo-fenced areas. Vodafone and Ericsson have teamed up and successfully tested ‘safe sky corridors’ for drones, using intelligent aspects of the mobile network, tested at their 5G mobility lab [6]. They were able to produce coverage maps that enabled the drones to stay on course and stay connected. This breakthrough also combats safety concerns, with the drones able to collect anonymized mobile user information, to avoid crowded areas on the ground through the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). This key information combats concerns on BVLOS systems, as constant contact between a drone and the control center is ensured.

Partnering for success

It’s clear that connectivity will play an increasingly important role in the growth of the commercial drone market in the coming years, with complex issues from resilience and security, to license applications and safety to consider. It’s critical that organizations choose a connectivity partner with expertise to navigate these challenges and ultimately deliver a resilient, compliant and future proof solution.

Matthew Clark, Business Development Manager, Wireless Logic

Matthew Clark (Business Development Manager, Wireless Logic) is an experienced Business Development Manager with a demonstrated history and enhanced proficiency within IoT, Virtualisation and Enterprise Architecture technologies (SaaS & IaaS).