Drones are moving beyond the hobby shops and becoming important tools for first responders and public safety advocates. These professional-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have proven to be capable of all sorts of valuable services and are becoming a potential new revenue stream for wireless service providers, especially with the advent of 5G and network slicing.

Drones Prove Their Worth With COVID-19

The World Health Organization has highlighted how drones are being used in China to fight COVID-19 by sanitizing outdoor spaces that teams on the ground can’t access.  And a recent Forbes article shows how drones are being used for crowd control and identifying those who are not wearing masks. Even before the virus, accessing a series of semi-isolated islands in China required 3 modes of transportation just to deliver groceries. Drone delivery helped solve this challenge, allowing urgent medical supplies to reach isolated families. In just a few days, several drone delivery flight corridors were put in place, replacing hours-long drives and boat rides with a 2 km flight that could be completed in just 10 minutes.

China isn’t the only country using drones to help tackle this crisis.  In Japan, the time it takes for getting COVID-19 test samples from local hospitals to the country’s disease control centers are being reduced by up to 50%, while keeping drivers safe from having to handle harmful substances. At the peak of the operation, it was running 20 or more flights every day.

Once the pandemic spread to Europe, countries like Spain and France have been put on lockdown and governments are using loudspeaker drones to broadcast public safety messages urging people to maintain a safe distance outside and to discourage travel.  And for the most futuristic use case, the prize goes to Australia, who is partnering with a Canadian drone manufacturer to create Pandemic Drones that use thermal technology to monitor its citizens for fevers, along with respiratory issues like coughing and sneezing.

In the UK, drones are being used by an overstretched police force who are using them to identify and warn, through a video camera and loud speaker, those who are breaking strict social distancing rules.  Recently, California, Florida and New Jersey became the first U.S. states to use drones to monitor and alert residents who are violating social distancing rules, and then threatening these offenders with citations.

While these examples may sound to many of us like something from a dystopian movie, these are not normal times. Many citizens are welcoming these enforcements as ways to keep communities safe, and most governments are trying to carefully balance public safety with civil liberties. With social distancing measures expected by some to last until 2022, many of these drone initiatives may be in place for a long time to come.

How Service Providers Can Help
Having already proven their worth, drones will be a “must have” in future public safety, first responder, and smart city initiatives. To safely support the use of UAVs at scale and operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), they will need to maintain a constant wireless connection that supports a mandated Remote ID, along with connectivity for command and control.  This is needed to provide airspace regulators with a way to approve flight paths, track their locations and ensure there is no interference or safety risks to people on the ground or manned aircraft. Wireless network providers are the best alternative for maintaining secure cellular connectivity to help support all these requirements, and more.

5G and Network Slicing
While many use cases today are leveraging 4G, the introduction of 5G network slicing means that instead service providers will be able to go beyond delivering ‘best-effort’ services, to providing a guaranteed level of connectivity and other features where critical SLAs can be supported. Network slices, SLAs and connectivity will all need to be monitored and assured on an ongoing basis, enabling CSPs to charge accordingly for this premium service. By supporting services like drones, CSPs will be able to sell SLAs as a new business model, and not just kilobytes of data per second.

Regulatory Hurdles
The current challenge is that rules and regulations aren’t quite keeping pace with demand. With the rare exception of those who are able to obtain a special waiver, as of today, there are no airspace regulatory agencies that have approved drones for operating BVLOS. But this is expected to change within the next two years or so – maybe sooner given the recent pressures resulting from the global pandemic.

Recently, the Small UAV Coalition filed a request for expedited waivers so that drones can be used to carry supplies in both rural and metropolitan areas, and a group called DRONERESPONDERS has formed a task force for exploring potential use cases and mission planning needs for drone operations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other global organizations recognize the need and are laying the groundwork for establishing regulations for BVLOS flights, including a traffic management ecosystem called UTM. The intent is that airspace will be managed through this UTM to enable multiple drone operations conducted beyond visual line-of-sight, where air traffic services are not provided.

Become Part of the Solution
It’s not too late for interested mobile service providers to become part of this ecosystem, with new business and partnership opportunities in the making.  With BVLOS, network operators have an opportunity to create new revenue streams and capture a piece of the projected $100 billion drone market. By preparing wireless networks now and putting the pieces in place for communicating with federal agencies, drone service providers, first responders and others, communication service providers can position themselves to play a critical role in the success of this nascent industry – while also helping to save lives and protect communities.

TEOCO’s AirborneRF is a data exchange platform designed for connecting the telecom industry with the aviation industry. We are currently engaged with several operators on their drone initiatives, including recent public announcements on our work with Swisscom, and Telstra. If you would like to learn more about AirborneRF, we collaborated with the GSMA and Dutch wireless provider KPN on a recent proof of concept. The case study can be downloaded here.