UAV industry has gained significant popularity in the past decade owing to the benefits offered by drones as compared to any other counterparts. Factors such as technological advancements, eased regulations, mass production of industry-specific drones, improvements in power source, and optics technology have resulted in the increasing adoption of drones for various commercial applications. However, there are several challenges restricting the growth of the UAV industry. Even though UAVs are undoubtedly more efficient compared to manned aircraft, UAVs face major challenges such as social acceptance, technological and regulatory challenges.
For more insights to understand if cellular-connected drones will solve the communication issues or not, attend the webinar on “Advances in UAV Communications: Present Challenges and Future Opportunities”, on Thursday 17th December 2020 at 10:30 AM PST, with guest speakers Mr. Thomas Neubauer, Vice President, TEOCO and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Investor, Entrepreneur, Innovator, Strategic Advisor - BIS Research.
Here’s a set of questions related to the UAV industry and the insights by BIS Lead Research Analyst, Haidar Ali.
Among various technological challenges faced by the UAV industry, communication is one of the areas that need immediate attention, so, what is the need for cellular communication in UAV operations?
Ans. It is an established fact that UAVs are more efficient for various commercial applications such as inspection and monitoring, search and rescue operations, remote sensing, surveying and monitoring, and aerial imaging. However, using drones for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations needs reliable long-range communication solutions that were provided by satellite communications that make the drone operations costly. Moreover, there are safety-related concerns that may happen due to poor or loss of communication and is uncompromisable, resulting in low social acceptance.
One of the alternate solutions to solve the communication issues in drones for urban operations could be the deployment of unmanned traffic management (UTM). However, the cost incurred to deploy and establish the infrastructure for UTM is quite high. One of the possible solutions to solve the drone communication issues and promote the adoption of UAVs is by utilizing the existing cellular network infrastructure for drone communication. Using the existing infrastructure will result in a cost-effective communication solution for drone communication as compared to SatCom or radio frequency (RF). Moreover, the cellular network can also provide safe drone operations reducing the risk of drone failure by providing continuous communication through cellular towers.
The increasing adoption of UAVs for commercial applications, especially for urban areas, can only be accelerated if the issues with communications are resolved.
What has restricted cellular network providers to enable UAV communication?
Ans. The data transferred between the ground control stations and the drone is in high volume. Drones are usually used for applications that require them to capture a high-quality image or video that is further used or analyzed by the user. For instance, an inspection and monitoring application requires a real-time video feed to the pilot. Such transfers require a high bandwidth communication link between the drone and the receiver (usually a pilot). Cellular network providers have struggled to provide cellular connectivity to mobile users for a long time. It is only by the advent of 4G LTE technology; there has been drastic improvement in data transmission technology.
The prime reason why cellular network providers could not penetrate the UAV market was due to the technological challenges in the data transmission the telecom industry was facing before 4G LTE. Since the inception of 4G, various drone manufacturers have successfully tested the use of the cellular network for drone operations. Moreover, the breakthrough caused by 5G technology has opened new gateways for establishing a more reliable drone communication infrastructure.
Regulatory challenges also prevented cellular network providers to enter the UAV industry as they were not be able to provide communication solutions as per the standards needed by UAV regulatory authorities. Guidelines issued by the regulatory authorities, such as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), need reliable communication solutions to ensure the safety of drone operations that were not met by using a cellular network for drone communications. One of the challenges that prevented the cellular network providers from entering the UAV industry was the lack of mobilizing relevant stakeholders such as telecom equipment providers, air navigation service providers, and regulatory bodies on a common platform from establishing a cellular drone ecosystem. However, the conditions are more favorable for stakeholders needed for establishing cellular-connected drone ecosystem.
Hence, cellular-connected drones could present an opportunity to solve the drone communication issues that can result in the increasing adoption of commercial drones.