From Unmanned Systems magazine: The power, promise and potential pitfalls of 5G for unmanned systems
Check out just a few wow-worthy examples of the vision that the fifth generation of wireless technology is inspiring for the use of connected drones:
• It could bring data-throughput speeds of up to 10 gigabytes per second, enabling real-time sharing of aerial video and other sensor data.
• It could enable devices to stay connected while traveling hundreds of miles per hour, allowing for remote deployment of AI-enabled, ultra-responsive autonomous fleets.
• It could support up to a million connected devices per square kilometer — enough capacity to absorb an explosion in the Internet of Things alongside increasingly sophisticated mobile applications, on the ground and aloft.
“5G is going to be transformative,” says Tom Sawanobori, chief technology officer for CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association). He cited a 2017 study by Accenture which estimated 5G would bring 3 million new jobs, $275 billion in new investment and a $500 billion boost to the U.S. gross domestic product.
But even though telecom providers are steadily building out 5G networks, challenges with spectrum availability in the United States and ongoing regulatory reluctance to allow more unmanned flight outside the line of sight remind us that the future is not here yet. And as we chase it, there are pitfalls to avoid.
One company that exemplifies how the futures of unmanned systems and telecom are merging is Skyward, an Oregon-based provider of services aimed at helping businesses nationwide to plan, implement and scale drone operations.
When Verizon acquired Skyward in April 2017, the move was hailed as part of the wireless giant’s targeting of commercial drone users as an emerging market. As growth in smartphone users was tapering off, thanks to market saturation, Verizon saw the use of connected drones as being poised to take off.
“Even before we were acquired ... our founders and presidents were out there touting that the communications networks were going to be one of the very key enablers of this future ecosystem that we could see,” says Skyward strategy chief Matt Fanelli.
That vision, Fanelli says, was “all about urban, connected drones that are flying around performing data collection, delivery, people-moving tasks — and that wasn’t going to be possible unless each of those drones were nodes on a network.”
Connectivity could open worlds of possible, profitable, scaleable drone use cases, but to grasp the leap forward that would be, consider that the push to connect drones themselves to the Internet is relatively new. A state-of-the-industry report that Skyward prepared with Blue Research found that in 2018, 10 percent of major enterprises in the U.S. were using drones. But almost none of the drones were connected to wireless networks, despite the already-wide availability of 4G.
Why not? Fanelli suggests two reasons. First, federal regulations against flight outside a controller’s line of sight cut into the perceived benefit of connecting a drone directly to a network, as opposed to just its ground-control station. Also, there was minimal demand for applications that required a network connection because those features could also add weight to an aircraft and consume power. The advent of 5G could be a game-changer on both counts.
Fanelli emphasizes there is much that drones can do now with just 4G LTE connections if the regulatory environment were friendlier to flight beyond the line of sight. And he said enthusiasm for 5G is helping to drive regulatory progress, which Skyward actively promotes.
“We can see from our present customers all of the wonderful things that they can do with drones,” he said. “But a lot of those kinds of use cases don’t really shine until you can do them at scale. And that scale comes with the march toward beyond line of sight.”
5G networks also ultimately could help to improve the energy efficiency of connected devices — much as cloud computing has done for devices, in general. Visionaries foresee a time when the burden of carrying connectivity gear and additional applications is reduced by the network.
“That’s what we call thinning the client,” Fanelli says. “When most of the smarts are on the network, you don’t need as much compute power on the drone itself. And that’s important when you look at things like improving battery life, improving flight time, improving the payload, etc.”
Unmanned traffic management As the potential of 5G pulls more drones into the airspace and pushes regulators toward beyond line of sight, the need to coordinate that traffic and keep it away from manned aircraft will grow ever more essential. With the future of unmanned traffic management (UTM) in mind, GE Aviation and GE Business Innovations in mid- 2018 launched a subsidiary called AiRXOS, based in Boston.
AiRXOS creates UTM software and hardware to help commercial drone users navigate the airspace safely. The company also provides services to help clients navigate the regulations involved in getting approved for advanced drone operations, as well as working with federal agencies and international organizations on regulatory frameworks and infrastructure for UTM.
“There’s already, what, 6 million to 7 million drones flying? So, you can imagine what the next 10 years are going to look like when we start bringing in things like urban air mobility,” says AiRXOS CEO Ken Stewart. “The face of aviation is going to change dramatically. And so, we want to be on the forefront of that now.”
Like Fanelli, Stewart emphasizes the need for flight beyond the line of sight to empower commercial drone users to scale up their operations.
“So, all of these advanced operations require a few things,” Stewart says. “They require safety — that’s first and foremost, the safety of the national airspace. And they require repeatability, scalability, and economic viability. We’re never going to get to the economical piece if we can’t learn to scale this.”
As an example, Stewart uses the use case of inspecting a field of solar panels. “If I had one person flying one drone, that could take me five days. But if I had one person able to fly three drones, that might take two days.”
Advanced drone operations that would benefit from greater scalability and flight beyond the line of sight tend also to be operations that would benefit from 5G connectivity, Stewart says.
“I think 5G will definitely open some doors,” he says, describing facility and equipment inspections that use sophisticated sensors and generate a terabyte of data per hour. “You can’t push that kind of data over 4G LTE.”
Still, Stewart says, he wonders whether telecom companies will be able to tailor 5G networks for the use cases that advanced drone operators need. In particular, he worries that the open spaces where drones need to fly for functions like inspections and delivery will end up being dead zones.
“Flying in dense, urban areas is more challenging for drones … but the more you get out in the rural areas, the less likely you are to have coverage, except over highways,” he said. “What we want is ubiquitous coverage such that the drone can always be connected when it’s flying.”
The CTIA’s Sawanobori shares his industry colleagues’ enthusiasm for 5G. But like many, he notes the United States is behind other countries in accessing the “sweet spot” of the spectrum for speed, capacity and propagation — mid-band wavelengths — to unleash the full potential of 5G.
He also notes that 5G deployments are well under way in the U.S. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile,
U.S. Cellular and Verizon have live 5G networks in a total of more than 250 cities and towns to date.
So far, however, U.S. networks rely primarily on low-band and high-band radio waves, Sawanobori says. The industry is struggling to catch up with other nations that are making more use of mid-band frequencies. In the U.S., much of that portion of the spectrum is currently unavailable for 5G because it is already occupied by commercial satellite and content providers, such as television networks, and by federal defense agencies.
“We effectively need to double our licensed mid-band in order to keep up with other countries,” Sawanabori says. “You really need the low-, mid- and high-band spectrum in order to have the kind of full deployment that we’re looking to do with 5G in the United States.” CTIA offers more information on the midband deficit in a March report, prepared by Analysys Mason.
What’s so special about mid-band? Wavelengths on the high-band spectrum, or millimeter waves, can carry large amounts of data, but not very far and not easily through obstacles, such as trees, buildings or even raindrops. High-band frequencies can work well for connected devices that are close to a hotspot, but their strength dwindles with more distance from a 5G node. Conversely, low-band wavelengths have better propagation, meaning they can transmit farther, but can’t carry as much data.
“The midband spectrum is what we call the sweet spot of coverage in capacity,” Sawanabori says. “So, it provides that spectrum depth and decent coverage, but also really good capacity and throughput.”
Sawanabori says CTIA is working closely with the FCC to free up more spectrum, and progress in 2020 has been impressive enough for the association to dub it “the year of midband.”
He says spectrum migration has been accomplished before, citing in particular the digital TV transition that happened in the 700-megahertz band.
“We have a lot of experience doing this in other bands, and I think we can apply the lessons learned,” he says. “It’s just going to take time.”
Below: A Skyward operations center for drones. More could be done with 5G and beyond line of sight flights, the company says. Photo: Skyward