We look at the enhancements 5G provides compared to its predecessor, what this could mean for the commercial drone industry, and the current state of the technology
Cellular communication via 4G LTE has already been explored by a number of drone industry players as an option for providing BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) capabilities for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Cellular connectivity can extend the range of drone operations beyond what is possible with non-cellular RF signals and can be integrated into commercial drone platforms that cannot afford the costs or the SWaP (size, weight, and power) budget of SATCOM communications.
Even as 4G is being experimented with, some developers are already looking ahead to 5G – the fifth generation of technology for cellular networks. Gradually rolled out since 2019, 5G features a number of notable improvements over its predecessor that could help unlock a new level of UAS applications.
The technological evolution from 4G to 5G
The most obvious advantage that 5G has over 4G is in its significantly enhanced data throughput. It is designed to deliver data rates of up to 10 gigabits per second, making it potentially up to 10 times faster than 4G LTE Advanced, which tops out at 1 gigabit per second, and up to 100 times faster than regular 4G.
5G also features much-improved latency, with response times of down to 1 millisecond compared to 4G’s 10 milliseconds. In conjunction with the ability to handle a connection density of a million mobile devices per square kilometer, this potentially makes the new technology ideal for Massive IoT (Internet of Things) and robotics applications. 5G is also the most power-efficient cellular technology yet, allowing low-power remote IoT devices to operate for months or even years without the need to change batteries.
The wireless technology behind 5G uses three different ranges of radio frequencies to provide its advanced communication capabilities. To achieve the highest data rates in the 5G specification, high frequencies known as mmWave (millimeter-wave) are utilized. The tradeoff is that high-frequency, short-wavelength radio waves can only travel for shorter distances, meaning that more cell towers will have to be installed. These waves will also be more easily disrupted by buildings, trees, and other obstacles.
5G also utilizes mid- and low-frequency radio waves, with the lowest frequencies having the opposite tradeoff to mmWave – wide-area coverage at the expense of data capacity.
A potential enabler for next-level drone operations
All these upgrades signify huge potential for the commercial drone industry of the future. The massive increases in speeds and bandwidth could help drone operators keep pace with the ever-growing amounts of data generated by modern high-resolution cameras and sensors, and will also allow them to take advantage of data processing on cloud servers. Combined with the increased device capacity, this could facilitate drone swarm operations at a scale that has previously been unheard of.
The improved latency is also a big deal, especially for autonomous drones, which will benefit from near-instant response for collision avoidance and other critical flight and navigation operations. Such capabilities are especially crucial for GPS-denied navigation, which can rely on processor-intensive image analysis techniques to characterize and successfully move through the environment.
5G’s improved power efficiency will also reduce the SWaP requirements for cellular-connected drones, allowing smaller platforms to join future ecosystems.
The current state of the art
While the 5G rollout is progressing at a steady rate, the technology is far from ubiquitous or mature. According to mobile connectivity experts GSMA Intelligence, just 7% of the global population were served by 5G networks at the end of 2021. Even within areas with 5G connectivity, many network providers have only deployed a limited number of mmWave cells, meaning that the full potential of 5G has yet to be unlocked. Each minute of data from onboard drone cameras and LiDAR scanners can be well into the gigabytes, and in order to transfer this in real-time, usage of the highest-band spectrum is essential.
Here are a few predictions from key industry stakeholders for the continued progress of 5G:
-GSMA Intelligence’s study forecasts that 25% of all global mobile connections will be 5G by the end of 2025
-Ericsson predicts that in 2026, over half of the world’s mobile data traffic will be carried over 5G networks
-According to Qualcomm, the full economic effect of 5G is likely to be felt across the world by 2035
In addition to coverage, a number of drone-specific issues need to be solved before the vision of a truly connected autonomous drone landscape can be realized. 5G and cellular broadcasting is optimized for terrestrial devices, not aerial applications. This means that antennas may have limited ability to broadcast to drones operating above very low altitudes – a problem that may be solvable by advanced beamforming technology.
Another problem with altitude is that compared to a terrestrial device, a drone has visibility of many more base stations, some of which will not be serving the cell that the drone is currently connected to. This may result in interference issues, and work to mitigate this problem is currently ongoing.
Incorporating 5G into your cutting-edge drone designs
If you are looking to create a new drone platform or retrofit an existing one in order to explore the possibilities of 5G as the technology continues to develop, Elsight’s Halo has you covered. The 5G-ready platform provides a low-SWaP capability that can utilize up to four unique cellular data links from multiple providers and allows your drone to automatically switch to a 3G or 4G link when 5G coverage is unavailable. To find out more, please get in touch.
Want to read more about 5G and cellular drone connectivity?
Cellular mapping and LTE communications have become attractive key enablers for BVLOS
Ericsson has a number of guides and deep dives for telecom operators and users alike.
Qualcomm has released a reference design for an AI-powered drone platform with 5G connectivity and has also laid out an informative Q&A here.
This paper, originally published in IEEE Communications Magazine, presents research into LTE connectivity for small low-altitude UAVs.
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