Up to now, civilian drones have largely relied on RF (radio frequency) communications for control, telemetry, and payload data transmission. While this works well for many small-scale LOS (line of sight) applications, it also has its share of limitations.
RF signals are highly limited by range. While it is possible to achieve greater distances than the typical couple of miles provided by the average commercial handheld drone controller by using a larger antenna and more power, eventually you will still hit a limit. This will prevent you from carrying out advanced BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) applications that require operational distances of dozens or even hundreds of miles.
RF signals also have their fair share of interference problems, and certain parts of the spectrum are becoming extremely overcrowded. Not all operational frequencies are available everywhere around the world, which can mean costly redesigns for manufacturers and operators hoping to attract international clients.
Going beyond RF communications for cellular-connected drones
Large military UAVs overcome these difficulties via the use of SATCOM (satellite communications) services. This is not practical for most commercial UAV applications, due to costs and the significant SWaP (size, weight, and power) profiles of SATCOM terminals. Cellular communications have begun to bridge the gap, with 4G LTE drones beginning to appear in regions of the world with high network coverage.
4G mobile communications can provide drones with a secure way of transmitting and receiving vital control signals and information. This theoretically allows them to operate at unlimited distances away from their control stations, as long as they are within range of a cell tower. But can we do even better?
5G is the fifth generation of mobile cellular communications, and while it is still in its infancy, it is poised to eventually take over from 4G as the dominant method. It offers a number of technological improvements that could be a game-changer for the drone industry.
5G brings massively increased connection speeds, with a theoretical maximum that is a hundred times faster than that of 4G. This enhanced throughput is a huge boon for a variety of data-intensive drone missions, including real-time video surveillance, visual analysis, and broadcasting, as well as applications such as mapping and surveying that can generate massive project files.
5G can also support a much larger density of unique devices. The number of drones and autonomous IoT (Internet of Things) devices continues to increase every day, with no signs of slowing down, and 5G may be crucial for enabling UTM (unmanned traffic management) services that can track and regulate vast numbers of unmanned aircraft while integrating them safely into controlled airspace. These improved networks will allow drone deliveries and swarm-based applications to truly scale.
The final major upgrade that will unlock new innovations in drone connectivity is reduced latency. Improved response time means safer and more efficient operations. In conjunction with 5G’s enhanced throughput, the reduced latency will also enable compute-intensive functions such as computer vision and AI (artificial intelligence) to be offloaded to powerful cloud-based servers. Smaller drones without the SWaP budget for advanced onboard processing will thus be able to benefit from advanced functions such as autonomous navigation and advanced image and video analysis.
The hurdles ahead for 5G line of sight
While 5G shows a lot of potential for ushering in a new age of innovation and technological leaps for the drone industry, there are still a number of challenges to be overcome. Chief among these is coverage – many regions in the world still have yet to benefit from near-ubiquitous 4G coverage, let alone 5G. To ensure safety, reliability, and guaranteed operations, 5G coverage must massively increase.
Mobile networks are largely designed to serve users at ground level. As drones and other vehicles operating at higher altitudes begin to utilize services such as 5G, unique challenges are expected to arise. Further testing and research into stability, interference, and bandwidth will be required before 5G cellular drone connectivity can be relied upon with complete confidence.
Connectivity solutions for early adopters and future-proof drone systems
As we have seen, the use of cellular wireless data links for drones will form an essential part of scaling up BVLOS capabilities for civilian drone markets, providing the range, throughput and responsiveness that next-generation applications need.
Whether you are planning to build a proof-of-concept prototype drone that can explore what is possible with cellular connectivity, or are looking ahead to create a new commercial product that is ready to roll with the 5G revolution, Elsight’s Halo is an ideal connectivity platform.
The carrier-agnostic Halo enables unmanned aircraft to utilize up to four unique cellular datalinks from multiple providers, enabling you to take advantage of 5G’s advanced capabilities safe in the knowledge that your drone can seamlessly switch to a backup LTE link should you lose coverage.
Halo also features a state-of-the-art bonding capability that combines all available links into one, automatically balancing traffic to provide maximum bandwidth for all your data-intensive streaming application requirements.
To find out more about how you can get in on the ground floor with 5G cellular connectivity for drones, please get in touch!