Cellular Communications for UAV Ground Control Stations

By Ben Gross | March 30th, 2023

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All UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), whether remotely controlled by a pilot or undertaking autonomous operations, require some kind of hardware that can monitor the aircraft and send and receive data as necessary. Ground control stations (GCS) encompass the physical systems on land that enable this functionality.

Drone ground control stations can vary hugely in size and complexity. These factors are linked in turn to the complexity and required capabilities of the corresponding unmanned aircraft, which can range from small palm-sized quadcopters through to large fixed-wing military platforms of similar size to manned aircraft.

Handheld and portable GCS

The simplest form of GCS, which is often employed by smaller and simpler hobby and commercial drones, is the user’s cellphone, tablet, laptop or other portable device running some form of specialized software. This software may be developed and maintained by a drone manufacturer, or may be a platform-agnostic application compatible with a range of different drone models. A number of free open-source software GCS packages are available for this purpose.

As a step up from this, many drones are provided with dedicated GCS hardware, and third-party platform-agnostic products are also available. For many basic applications, a handheld controller with a screen suffices, allowing the pilot to control the aircraft and trigger basic payload functions.

More advanced portable GCS are based around a laptop or small PC embedded within a rugged carrying case. These systems are designed with a greater variety of switches, buttons and other input devices, and may provide a HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) control scheme similar to those used by manned aircraft.

These larger GCS may also have dual screens, enabling the payload control and display to be separated from functions such as aircraft telemetry and mapping. This setup may also allow two operators to utilize the same GCS, with one focusing on piloting the aircraft and the other one controlling the payload.

Fixed-site ground control stations

The largest GCS take the form of entire command centers within a building or vehicle trailer, or on board a naval vessel. Such stations are usually reserved for the largest government drones such as the Global Hawk and Reaper, and may incorporate multiple screens and instrument panels, approaching the complexity of a manned aircraft cockpit.

GCS for commercial and enterprise drones are unlikely to reach this level of complexity. Government and military drones used for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and related functions are equipped with a vast array of payloads, including EO/IR (electro-optical/infrared) systems and specialized SIGINT (signals intelligence) and EW (electronic warfare) sensors, and their command, control and communications requirements are significantly more advanced.

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Drone GCS communications requirements and methods

For most commercial drones, the GCS will need to send aircraft and payload commands, and receive telemetry. More complex systems, particularly those that operate autonomously, may need to supply the aircraft with additional data such as information on weather and other aircraft operating in the vicinity. In the future, drones may also require the ability to communicate with a UTM (unmanned traffic management) service provider at any time during the flight.

For some applications, data from the onboard payloads may be captured and stored onboard, and not retrieved by the operator until the flight is over. For other use cases, such as surveillance and monitoring, this data may need to be streamed in real time to the GCS.

The datalink between the control station and the aircraft typically uses one of three methods – unlicensed RF (radio frequency), SATCOM (satellite communications), or cellular (4G, 4G LTE, or 5G). Selection of a GCS communications technology will depend on a number of factors, including requirements for availability, range, and the SWaP (size, weight and power) budget of the aircraft.

One major factor to be considered is whether or not the drone will be operating BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight). Long-range BVLOS missions may take the drone out of radio line of sight with the GCS, meaning that an unlicensed RF datalink will be insufficient. Such datalinks are also affected by spectrum crowding, which causes interference as large numbers of devices all try to use the same frequencies at the same time. This issue is particularly likely to affect commercial drones operating in urban areas, where the highest concentration of RF devices is to be found.

SATCOM datalinks provide connectivity almost anywhere in the world, making them a potential solution for BVLOS drones. However, usage of SATCOM networks is extremely expensive, and the cost-per-bit will be prohibitive for most commercial drone ventures. SATCOM terminals are also relatively bulky, and while this may not be so much of an issue on the ground, many small UAS platforms will not have the available SWaP budget.

Cellular datalinks provide a number of advantages for establishing BVLOS links between drones and ground control stations. Provided both aircraft and GCS are within range of cell towers, they allow for theoretically unlimited operational distances. Cellular modems are lightweight, compact and low-power, making them ideal for incorporation into many different commercial drone platforms.

With the increasing proliferation of 5G, BVLOS drones can take advantage of next-generation communications capabilities. 5G data rates can potentially reach 10 gigabits per second, with latencies of down to 1 millisecond, making the technology ideal for meeting the high throughput requirements of applications that transmit real-time streaming data and video. 5G can also support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer, thus solving the aforementioned spectrum crowding issue.

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A robust communications solution for drone datalinks

Elsight’s Halo platform is an ideal UAV communication system communications solution for establishing robust cellular datalinks between UAVs and ground stations. The proven hardware is available in two form factors – an OEM card that can be integrated into UAV airframes with minimal SWaP impact, and a standalone fully enclosed version that is ideal for ground deployments.

The 5G-capable system is carrier-agnostic, and can utilize up to four datalinks from different cellular providers. These links can be utilized as backups to provide critical redundancy, or aggregated together with secure bonding technology to maximize all available bandwidth. Whatever the communications requirements for your mission, Halo seamlessly adapts to dynamic conditions, with automatic traffic balancing and secure data tunneling.

If you are developing a ground control station or commercial BVLOS drone platform, please get in touch with us to experience the Halo advantage and UAV connectivity solution for yourself.

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