25 JULY 2019

The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) market, otherwise known as drones, has been experiencing healthy growth in the United States and around the world over the last 5 years, according to the FAA Aerospace Forecast 2019-2039.

In an interview with TEOCO’s Vice President of Innovation and Business Development, Thomas Neubauer, we learn more about the current state of commercial drones and what TEOCO is doing to help service providers manage and assure drone services:

Over the past decade drones have become a popular hobby, but are you seeing growth in the commercial drone market as well?
I believe commercial drones are going to be one of the largest growth areas over the next several years. Since we last wrote about the introduction of commercial drones, in the US alone, the pace for monthly non-model commercial drone operator registrations is nearly three times higher than the pace at which these owners registered aircraft in the same period the year prior.

What are some commercial drone services?
Opportunities for commercial drones have spread across a wide variety of industries. Ever since the United States legalized commercial use in 2016, industries such as oil & gas, public safety and first responders, medicine, agriculture, insurance, construction, real estate and retail are realizing a multitude of benefits to their business, and this will really grow once we can move drone operations beyond visual line of site (BVLOS).  BVLOS is when the drone is not in direct line of sight of the pilot. Legally, all drones must be in visual line of site of the pilot, but that is about to change with new regulations. Once BVLOS is approved, commercial drones will either be flying autonomously, or they will be remotely piloted, and this will enable a whole new range of services that we have never seen before.

What challenges are there with flying drones beyond visual line of sight?
With no human pilot onboard having command and control over these flying objects, many international aviation authorities are chiming in, including the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation Eurocontrol. In order to operate a drone BVLOS and interact safely with manned aerial vehicles such as airplanes, a secure and reliable communication mechanism for command and control of drones, or what the industry calls Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), will need to be in place.

What is the relevance of this for Cellular Communications Service Providers?
For safe operation and to help to mitigate risks, according to FAA aviation safety inspector Kevin Morris, BVLOS will require a dedicated frequency – either obtained by an FCC grant or leased from a licensed holder. For large commercial deployments of UAVs, cellular networks are in an ideal position to deliver the communication mechanisms for command and control for these drones for several reasons:

  • The infrastructure is available and affordable, and already exists,
  • the latency requirements to communicate with drones is very critical, and cellular provides a much better option than satellite,
  • and lastly, the conventional mechanisms for communicating with manned aviation, like terrestrial analog signals or radar, are just not applicable at the lower altitudes that UAVs and drones will be allowed to fly.

Will commercial drone operators need to interact with aviation authorities?
Every manned aircraft flight that enters regulated airspace must be planned and approved by the aviation authorities, such as the FAA and Eurocontrol. Autonomous, or unmanned drones will be no different and will have to follow the same process. A commercial service provider for drones will need to plan and submit a flight route that considers the same criteria for manned aircraft, such as wind and weather, and it must avoid regulated no fly zones, like stadiums and hospitals. Additionally, they will need to consider where they have enough connectivity for command and control capabilities and to assure communication can be established and maintained with the relevant authorities. This is where cellular service providers come in.

For drones flying in unregulated airspace, different rules apply. You don’t typically need authorization from air traffic control; however, carriers and drone service providers will still need to manage UAV traffic and assess the risks of each flight. This is called the SORA process – Specific Operations Risk Assessment. The specifics around this program are still under development, but it is expected to include requirements for assuring drone connectivity to maintain command and control. Another consideration is that modems or other equipment installed on drones can’t create so much interference that a safe and secure command and control connection can’t be established and maintained. After all, no one wants drones falling out of the sky or flying into buildings.

Aren’t cellular infrastructures optimized to serve customers located on the ground? How does the radio network behave when connectivity is needed up in the sky?
TEOCO has developed a solution called AirborneRF specifically for this reason. For those service providers that are interested in supporting UAV services, AirborneRF can determine what can be provided through their existing radio network and identify any improvements that need to be made to better support this market. It also allows them to protect their current users by ensuring their service isn’t disrupted. This is especially important, as UAV connectivity does pose a potential risk if it’s not planned for accordingly.

In addition, AirborneRF computes the three-dimensional corridors where it is safe to fly and provides that information in formats that can be automatically read and processed by aviation systems. This enables air traffic management systems to combine and assess the traffic management and the flight coordination required between manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Airborne RF also helps drone operators to figure out the best flight plan within the available connectivity. This data is also provided to air traffic management systems for manned and unmanned aviation so they can correlate additional data sources, like wind and weather information.

What are the business opportunities for communications service providers?
This is a rare occasion for new monetization use cases where CSPs can provide connectivity to new industry verticals. The opportunities for CSPs within these industries are two-fold – the first is to provide data about where it is safe to fly in a three-dimensional radio corridor, and secondly, to sell the connectivity. An important note here is that this connectivity, as well as the data, is for a very unique set of users. Carriers are providing a valuable service that is far more than connectivity. It’s an IoT application that is mission critical and time sensitive – and therefore can be priced in a way other than kilobits per second. Additionally, data charges will apply to each individual request for a drone flight. That’s because data requirements are different each time since each flight varies in time and space.

How can carriers help assure BVLOS connectivity?
Once commercial drones are operational, TEOCO has a solution called HELIX that assures the connectivity while the drone is airborne. HELIX is a service assurance suite that delivers an automated, analytical and proactive approach to performance, fault and service management. Equipping CSPs with tools that help them to anticipate, identify and resolve service problems and network outages, HELIX is a proven service assurance platform that enables a proactive approach– critical for commercial drone connectivity and safety.

Where does 5G fit into drone connectivity?
5G is going to be a brilliant technology for drones because you have the possibility of creating a dedicated network slice that is communicating with your drone without affecting any of your other customers. With 5G, it all comes down to being able to track, measure and enforce various service agreements and functionality to ensure each network slice contains all the necessary components each service requires. Once the regulations are in place for BVLOS, this opens the door to multitude of new opportunities for cellular service providers. But they need to plan ahead and have the right tools in place– because it’s coming.

Click here to learn more about AirborneRF and HELIX.