Currently, commercial drone operations around the world largely operate using the same model – one pilot, operating one aircraft with one ground control station, flying within visual line of sight. While autonomous operations are becoming more commonplace, the possibility of increasing efficiency even further still remains, via the use of swarm technology.
Drone swarming utilizes large numbers of coordinated aircraft, making decisions as a unit based on shared information. Their operations must be completely autonomous, as a team of human pilots would be completely incapable of carrying out such levels of co-ordination in real time while being directly responsible for each individual vehicle.
Drone swarms are mostly known to the public through light shows such as those performed by Intel at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, or through the press surrounding military research and development such as DARPA’s OFFSET program. However, drone swarming has potential beyond entertainment and battlefield usage, and could enhance a wide variety of civilian UAS (unmanned aerial systems) applications.
Enhanced productivity for commercial drone operations
The use of drone swarming activity has the potential to save both time and labor, reducing the need for operators while splitting up tasks among multiple vehicles. This means that along with BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) and autonomy, drone swarming could be another pillar that unlocks enhanced efficiency for the drone industry and boosts economic potential.
Inspection and monitoring would benefit massively from autonomous division of labor. Large agricultural holdings, roads, power lines and other infrastructure networks, and wind farms could all be scanned and assessed in a fraction of the time it would take a manually piloted drone service to complete the task. First responders could cover an area of interest much faster, allowing search and rescue missions or suspect tracking to succeed when time is of the essence.
Delivery services could also be boosted significantly by the application of intelligent UAV swarms. Large residential areas could be served by a network of package delivery drones, all with coordinated mission data and flight plans.
The complexities of drone swarming
The development of viable drone swarming for commercial applications requires a number of challenges to be solved. Drone swarming is highly complex, and the full autonomy required needs extremely advanced levels of artificial intelligence, computer vision and sensor fusion to accomplish. Each drone must maintain proper separation from the other swarm members while continually maintaining awareness and keeping up to date with a dynamic environment.
Sophisticated algorithms must be developed that can process large amounts of data and turn it into actionable intelligence for each drone. A suitable communications architecture must also be selected that allows an aircraft to maintain connectivity with the swarm and co-ordinate operations in real time.
On a non-technical level, one of the most obvious challenges is legality. In the highly dynamic and evolving regulatory environment surrounding the drone industry, swarm operations do not yet have a neat place to “fit” and are usually outlawed by default. For instance, the United States Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 regulations for small UAS currently state that:
“A person may not manipulate flight controls or act as a remote pilot in command or visual observer in the operation of more than one unmanned aircraft at the same time.”
This means that the testing of potential commercial drone swarm activities would require a waiver. Acquiring a waiver is a long and involved process that requires you to convince the FAA that every aspect of your system is safe and completely failproof.
Cellular communications for drone swarms
Many drone swarm operations to date have used communications based on unlicensed RF (radio frequency). While this technology is well-established, it has a number of drawbacks. It may be susceptible to interference due to spectrum crowding – a problem that becomes exacerbated with increased numbers of drones. RF data links are also limited to radio line of sight, making them less suited to long-distance applications or missions that may take place in cluttered or built-up environments such as urban areas.
Cellular communications can bypass both these problems. Technologies such as 4G and 5G utilize licensed portions of the spectrum, meaning that only regulated devices can access it. 5G boasts a much-improved device density of up to 1 million per square kilometer, providing essentially limitless potential for drone swarm applications. The distance that cellular-connected drones can travel from their control station is also effectively unlimited as long as cell towers are in range.
With response times as fast as 1 millisecond, 5G also provides the low latency required for drones to communicate with each other and react to the environment in real time. The technology’s enhanced throughput makes it ideal for transmitting the large volumes of data that could be generated by applications such as multi-drone inspections or mapping.
Harnessing the power of cellular connectivity for drone swarms
If you are looking for a robust cellular connectivity solution for your drone swarm testbed or proof-of-concept, Elsight’s Halo has you covered. The 5G-ready solution is compact and lightweight, and is easy to integrate into a wide variety of drone platforms.
Proven in BVLOS drone flights around the world, Halo uses advanced cellular bonding to deliver a reliable data link with built-in failover and redundancy. Aggregating up to four different cellular links from multiple carriers, it is ideal for ensuring that your drone swarming operations are as safe and secure as possible.
Elsight offers a Halo VIP (Value Investment Program) that allows drone companies to kickstart their acceleration into BVLOS operations. The program includes our SMART Start onboarding process that helps you every step of the way with planning, implementation, certification, and expediting a successful proof-of-concept. VIP members also benefit from volume discounts on Halo and flexible purchase agreements, giving you the ability to easily scale as your confidence in your swarm technology grows.
To find out more about how Halo could help you get your drone swarm off the ground, please get in touch!