How 5G Drones Delivered Red Bull to Rampage Athletes

By Roee Kashi CTO | Modified on April 2nd, 2023

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(Note: this blog post first appeared as a guest post by Elsight CTO, Roee Kashi, on the T-Mobile blog.)

When in areas as remote and beautiful as Virgin, Utah it can sometimes be difficult to get a reliable phone signal. So how did T-Mobile and drone logistics and delivery company, DroneUp, manage to deliver fresh cans of Red Bull to Rampage athletes responsible for creating the courses they’ll ride down?

Simple, with help from Elsight and our Halo connectivity system.

5G Drone Connectivity

At Elsight, we provide software and hardware technology solutions to facilitate reliable network connections and our Halo system can aggregate multiple LTE and 5G links from multiple carriers and prioritize those links in the aggregation tunnel. This means we can outfit a drone to receive signals from different carriers and prioritize which one we want to use. If there happens to be a gap in the network on one of the links, Halo can switch to a new signal to ensure the drone doesn’t go down. This layer of backup is critical in for all types of drone flights and becomes even more necessary as beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations get closer to being commercialized.

Halo also monitors and records traffic usage (i.e. how much data was sent/received from each link), and we can record the signal strength from all the modems with timestamps, 3D GNSS positioning, packet loss levels, and latency measurements which are all vital pieces of information to the team piloting the drone.

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In the build up to the mission in Utah, we worked closely with the T-Mobile and DroneUp teams to test T-Mobile’s 5G network on Standalone (SA) and Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G across multiple bands and found that T-Mobile’s 5G SA network locked on band N71 (600MHz) proved to be the easy choice to complete the mission.

How T-Mobile’s 5G SA Performed

To start, it’s important to highlight what 5G SA is. 5G solution by itself isn’t just an improvement of the radio protocol, but it introduces a whole new paradigm in cellular network design and brings the network core to the edge. In this instance, the drone flying the mission. 5G SA takes this a step further because it has its own dedicated core, meaning it doesn’t share radio or network resources with LTE users, a major strength when running applications that require low latency, like drones. T-Mobile happens to have the nation’s only nationwide 5G SA network and is one of the main reasons why the drone was able to perform so well. In fact, we were even able to demonstrate a direct connection between the drone and mobile ground control station over IPv6.

The second piece of the pie revolves around band n71. Drone operations are highly recommended over this band thanks to its ability to sperate uplink and downlink bands for simultaneous transmission, which is extremely helpful when flying a drone in real-time. Again, it just so happens that T-Mobile the only U.S. provider supporting n71 at 600MHz with its nationwide Extended Range 5G. Its range can even be extended up to 30% when in 5G SA only mode – meaning even more areas are covered in low-band 5G – which is critical to flights in rural areas like the one we performed at Rampage.

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How 5G Connection was Preferred Over LTE and Other Carriers

During the event, Halo carried three modems: a 5G SA modem with T-Mobile (priorirty-1), an LTE modem with T-Mobile (priority-2), and an LTE modem connected to alternative cellular providers (priority-3). The icing on the cake? Using radio frequency recordings throughout the flight, we saw that all operations only ever used the T-Mobile 5G SA modem without ever needing to use the backup links. This means that even in rural Utah, T-Mobile’s 5G SA network performed so well the drone never needed to switch to the backup networks, with Halo experiencing zero drops and disconnects.

What makes Halo and the flights performed at Rampage even more special is how we were able to establish an encrypted tunnel from the drone to the cloud server which we used for both command and control over T-Mobile 5G.

T-Mobile’s excellent 5G network was the clear choice for this deployment and its 5G SA network executed the deployment perfectly, carrying all the data to and from the Halo system and the ground control station with ultra-low latency. T-Mobile’s network range and stability created the unique conditions necessary for Halo’s RF-over-5G, where local routing and ultra-low latency create ideal conditions for drone flights which were easily achieved over the 5G SA network.

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5G Connected Drones for Delivery

Commercial drone delivery technologies are quickly emerging and T-Mobile’s 5G network and our Halo system easily showcased how the Un-carrier has the reach and ability to perform unmanned aerial vehicle operations – especially in rural areas and even more so now that T-Mobile just upgraded it’s Ultra-Capacity to include 5G SA nationwide. The potential this creates offers an exhilarating prospect for future Halo deployments, especially when BVOS operations become the norm.

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