Drones and cellular networks: A good match?

Putting LTE-ready silicon in a drone is the easy part — the hard part is configuring networks to talk with them. But, once we accomplish this, it could open up new opportunities in the field of ‘beyond line of sight’ operations and even extend communications.

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In the future, drones could do everything from delivering our pizzas to ferrying us around major cities. They could act as search and rescue operatives, and perhaps even photograph and map our real estate.

If we’re going to achieve some of these goals, though, drones will need to fly further and higher than ever before. That means connecting them with cellular networks.

Today’s drones typically connect to controllers using short-range communications protocols such as Wi-Fi. As companies strive to do more with them, they’ll need longer-range communications. AT&T and Intel are now working together to put 4G LTE connectivity into drones, which would allow them to roam further than ever before.

Avoiding dead spots

Putting LTE-ready silicon in a drone is the easy part. The hard part is configuring networks to talk with them. Cell towers are typically designed to serve people on the ground, rather than devices hovering in the air, which means that drones could hit dead spots. Cellular operators may have to reconfigure their cellular base stations to provide signals at drone altitudes in certain areas.

While cellular providers work that out, third-party commercial and academic teams are already pitching in. Finnish firm Sharper Shape has developed a system that uses multiple 4G connections from different cellular networks concurrently to keep drones in touch.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are also trying to gauge where those dead spots might be by converting an ambulance into a cellular transceiver, which they then drive to different places. Using quadcopters, they measure the quality of the signals from the ambulance based on the surrounding topology. This technique could be used to map cell signal quality for drones.

Higher, further, better

Once we nail this, it could make a variety of things possible in the field of ‘beyond line of sight’ (BLOS) operations. For example, Google has been working for at least the last couple of years on Project Wing, which will see drones delivering things physically from the air:

Amazon is already testing drones for its own same-day delivery project, called Prime Air, at a rural site in British Columbia. It eventually hopes to deliver packages of five pounds or under in 30 minutes or less in selected areas.

Drones that extend communications

There are other possibilities, too, such as disaster response. Several drone-based projects in this field use drones to connect with cellular networks so that those in need can be rescued. Star Solutions has turned drones into tiny cellular network nodes, allowing them to fly into search and rescue situations and then send text messages or place calls to phones in the area.

Researchers at the University of North Texas are also using drones to communicate. They’ve developed a way to create Wi-Fi hotspots and, using drones that then talk to each other via line-of-sight access, provide much-needed communications networks in areas where existing infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed.

Facebook and Alphabet are also working on large, high-flying drones that could serve city-sized areas with high-speed Internet access while staying aloft for months.

Drones may even be of use to cellular telecommunications providers themselves. PreNav and Fluke Networks have developed drones and drone payloads, respectively, which can fly around cell towers and relay video and other data, reducing the need for human engineers to put themselves at risk.

Safety first

A drone utopia may soon be upon us, but we still have to worry about where they are. Near misses with drones at major airports are spooking safety experts, and regulators are naturally worried. Flying further and higher will exacerbate those safety issues.

U.S. firm PrecisionHawk wants to use cellular networks to solve these problems too, by getting every drone to communicate its whereabouts via 4G signalling and Iridium satellite data, creating what amounts to a gigantic drone air traffic control system. NASA is working with Verizon on a similar system that will track drones via cell towers.

In the meantime, regulators have to get on board. The Federal Aviation Authority in the U.S. currently bans BLOS, but has at least proposed rules for flying commercial drone usage. North of the border, Transport Canada has been a little speedier in creating permanent rules for commercial drone operations.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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