The use of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology is becoming increasingly widespread as a critical tool for law enforcement, first responders and emergency services teams. Drones provide an eye-in-the-sky capability that is cheaper and quicker to deploy than a manned helicopter, while keeping personnel out of harm’s way.
Traditionally, most small drones such as those typically used for public safety and emergency response applications use unlicensed RF (radio frequency) links for command, control and communications. However, cellular datalinks provide several advantages over RF, and next-generation 5G technology in particular brings a number of features that could potentially bring emergency response drone operations to the next level.
5G technology and connected drones
Unlicensed RF datalinks operate on frequencies that can be freely used in most places around the world without the need for a special radio broadcast license. However, their main downfall is that they require radio line of sight (LOS) between the drone and operator. Due to the properties of electromagnetic radiation, the signal will get weaker as the distance from the operator increases, and may also be affected by obstacles such as trees, buildings and terrain. This may cause issues for emergency response drones carrying out tasks such as search and rescue that require them to operate over extremely long distances or in mountainous areas.
Another issue that has the potential to cause problems for RF-based first responder drones, particularly those operating in urban or otherwise highly-developed areas, is spectrum crowding. This occurs when large numbers of devices all try to use the same frequencies at the same time. Drones are not the only devices that require use of their particular frequency bands, and spectrum crowding is likely to become even more of an issue in the near future as the number of broadcasting devices – drones or otherwise – continues to increase.
Cellular datalinks can provide an answer to all these problems. They allow drones to operate BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) at theoretically unlimited distances, as long as a cell tower is within range. 5G in particular has the ability to support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer, ensuring that spectrum crowding is no longer an issue.
Click here to find out more about cellular communications and how they help to enable BVLOS drone operations.
How 5G solutions enhance safety and effectiveness
In addition to its high density of connected devices, 5G cellular technology also features other enhancements over its predecessor that can boost the effectiveness of emergency response drones. Latency has been much reduced compared to 4G, with response times lowering from around 10 milliseconds down to as little as 1 millisecond. This is a huge advantage for real-time applications where changing situations need to be responded to instantly by the operator, as well as for drones with autonomous safety features such as collision avoidance.
5G can deliver data rates of up to 10 gigabits per second, providing up to 10 times the throughput of 4G LTE Advanced and up to 100 times more than regular 4G. Many emergency response drones transmit video back to the operator, and a much higher throughput will allow smoother and higher-resolution streaming, giving personnel a much clearer picture of the situation.
Use cases for 5G-connected emergency response drones
Drone technology has already been embraced by many public agencies in the United States and all around the world, and has been used to undertake a wide variety of emergency response tasks. Examples include:
- Crime scene investigation, suspect tracking, and hostage negotiations for police and SWAT teams
- Tracking missing persons and finding victims during search and rescue operations, both on land and at sea
- Providing an aerial view for firefighters that enables them to locate fire hotspots, keep the spread in check and spot potential casualties
The use of 5G for emergency response drones, as well as for many applications of unmanned aircraft, is still in its infancy. However, a number of trials have been carried out and real-life use cases are beginning to be deployed. In Belgium, Nokia and telecoms operator Citymesh have partnered to develop a network of automated drone-in-a-box units that are designed to gather critical information for first responders and emergency services personnel during the first 15 minutes after a call. The drones can take advantage of public and private 5G and LTE networks to deliver large amounts of streaming data with very low latency.
Click here to find out more about the 5G-powered Safety Drone network in Belgium
The challenges of 5G for BVLOS drones
While the use of 5G sounds like a no-brainer for drone connectivity, and especially for emergency services equipment, there are still a number of sticking points. The first is that coverage is far from ubiquitous, with one study performed by GSMA Intelligence forecasting that even by the end of 2025, only 25% of all global mobile connections will be 5G. More cell towers are also required compared to 4G, as 5G utilizes high-frequency, short-wavelength radio waves that can only travel for shorter distances.
Some drone-specific issues have also arisen due to the fact that cellular networks have been designed to support users and devices located on the ground, rather than at the typical operational altitudes of unmanned aircraft. The increased line of sight with cell towers from non-relevant networks, as well as the sub-optimal radiation pattern seen from the air, can lead to issues such as interference and sudden drops in signal strength. These in turn can result in loss of connectivity for drone datalinks.
These problems can be mitigated through use of a communications solution that can support multiple cellular datalinks from multiple providers. This will ensure that 5G-powered drones have built-in critical redundancy that will serve them well in changing communications environments and will provide maximum safety.
Elsight’s 5G connectivity technology
Elsight’s Halo platform is a cellular communications solution that enables developers of drones aimed at emergency services applications to harness the power of 5G. The carrier-agnostic system can utilize up to four unique cellular datalinks from multiple providers. This capability can be used for critical redundancy, allowing the drone to switch to a backup 5G, 4G or 3G link when the primary channel is lost. Halo’s AI-powered 6th Sense technology automatically balances traffic and continually monitors link conditions, enabling you to seamlessly adapt to the dynamic requirements of emergency services applications.
All available links can also be aggregated together using secure cellular bonding technology, maximizing the usable bandwidth for video and data streaming from onboard sensors. Halo also features an ultra-low SWaP (size, weight and power) footprint, making it highly suited for incorporation into a wide variety of UAS platforms.
To find out more about Halo’s 5G capabilities, click here.
How is 5G used for drones?
5G is used to provide command, control and communication links for drone platforms, enabling extremely low-latency response and providing the ability to stream large amounts of data from onboard cameras and sensors.
Which drones are 5G-enabled?
Only a few commercial off-the-shelf drone models come with 5G communications built in as standard, but the number is slowly growing. Elsight’s Halo hardware allows system integrators and developers to equip drones with a robust multi-link 5G capability.
What are the advantages of 5G in UAV low-altitude communication?
5G enables BVLOS drone operations to take place at great distances away from the operator, as long as there is a cell tower within range. The low latency also enables quick response for effectively real-time control.
- https://www.elsight.com/blog/5g-the-potential-to-revolutionize-the-drone-industry/ – more information on 5G technology and its enhancements over 4G, and what this means for cellular-connected drones.
- https://www.elsight.com/blog/how-5g-drones-are-changing-the-face-of-delivery/ – the potential of 5G to revolutionize the drone delivery sector.
- https://www.elsight.com/blog/how-5g-changed-the-game-for-athletes-at-red-bull-rampage/ – a look at how 5G drones have already been deployed for a non-emergency use case.