While the concept of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for delivery has existed for a while, the era of large-scale commercial drone delivery services providing for both businesses and residential areas is still yet to arrive. The continuing rollout of 5G, along with the solidification of airspace regulations, could help accelerate the progress of this exciting and essential technological shift.
Drones Operating Beyond Visual Line of Sight
Currently, the vast majority of commercial drone operations are performed within the operator’s line of sight (LOS), which puts a practical restriction on range at about 500 meters. While some last-mile delivery services use this option by flying a drone to the delivery destination from a van, this approach is not massively scalable.
Widespread beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations are needed in order to create large-scale autonomous drone delivery services and unlock true commercial viability. The regulatory framework that will enable this is still under development, but some authorities such as the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have begun to approve waivers for BVLOS drone flights on a case-by-case basis, subject to a rigorous and demanding approval process.
5G Delivery Drones & UAVs
Traditional RF (radio frequency) drone data links are limited to radio line-of-sight. This means that for autonomous long-range delivery drones that may operate through networks spanning hundreds of miles, an alternative command, control, and communication solution is required.
SATCOM (satellite communications) is commonly used to provide large military drones with connectivity that is available almost anywhere on the planet, with close to 100% uptime. However, this will not be viable for most commercial delivery drones, as SATCOM terminals are relatively bulky and unlikely to fit the drone’s SWaP (size, weight, and power) budget. SATCOM services also come with expensive subscription costs that will eat into commercial profits.
5G cellular communications have the potential to satisfy the requirements for this missing link. With data rates of up to 10 gigabits per second, 5G is up to 10 times faster than its predecessor, and also provides latency as low as 1 millisecond. These significant upgrades make it ideal for bandwidth-hungry and safety-critical applications such as drone delivery.
5G is also the most power-efficient form of cellular communications to date, meaning that even smaller drone platforms will be able to take advantage of cellular data links.
Armed with this state-of-the-art connectivity and the ability to fly and operate almost anywhere, drones could unlock a wide variety of commercial and industrial delivery applications. These are not just limited to groceries and household goods, but could also include:
• Blood, organs and medical supplies
• Food, vaccines and humanitarian aid
• Radios, life rafts and other critical search and rescue aids
• Parts for vessels and offshore platforms
5G Drone Tracking
In order to ensure peace of mind, an essential component of any delivery service is the ability to find out exactly where your package is at any point during the process. Precision tracking is also critical for safety and ensures that delivery drones will not collide with buildings, trees, other aircraft, and a variety of other potential hazards.
Thanks to its extremely low latency, 5G is ideal for providing highly accurate real-time tracking. Vodafone has already tested remote tracking of 5G-enabled vehicles, and with help from PPP-RTK (Precise Point Positioning-Real Time Kinematics) technology and a GNSS network provided by Sapcorda, managed to achieve position accuracy to within 10 centimeters.
As an additional benefit, 5G can also support a larger density of connected devices – up to 1 million in an area of 1 square kilometer. This allows 5G networks to easily support swarm applications and large fleets of delivery drones.
5G and AI Capabilities
With the recent advances in processing power and miniature embedded computing systems, artificial intelligence has taken off in a big way, and is now used for a variety of drone applications. Computer vision algorithms can provide autonomous delivery drones with a number of safety-critical features, such as enhanced navigation and detect-and-avoid capabilities.
Onboard embedded systems that can handle the intensive processing required for AI applications can be relatively power-hungry, and thus may not fit into the SWaP budgets of smaller drones. However, there is a way around this – the required processing may be offloaded to cloud servers, which can do the math and return the actionable results to the drone. With its high data throughput and extremely low latency, 5G is an essential part of this process.
5G for Drone Connectivity
While 5G coverage is still far from widespread, and a number of drone-specific issues relating to interference and altitude still need to be solved, there is no doubt that in time it will be a massive boon to the drone industry and to delivery drones in particular.
5G connected drones offer impressive throughput and near-real time latency, is highly secure, and theoretically allows BVLOS missions to take place at any distance away from a control station, as long as cellular towers are in range. These characteristics make it ideal for incorporation into a safe and reliable drone communications link, which is an essential component of any BVLOS platform.
Elsight and Certified Drone Partners
Elsight’s 5G-ready Halo platform is ideal for early adopters and systems integrators looking to create a drone delivery platform that can take advantage of the next generation of cellular connectivity. Halo is a lightweight and compact connectivity solution that uses sophisticated cellular bonding technology to aggregate up to four cellular datalinks from multiple providers, providing a secure and reliable communications solution. Halo also provides seamless switching to a backup 3G/4G/LTE link should 5G connectivity be lost.
Elsight is looking to partner with drone delivery companies and other service providers who are similarly committed to driving the evolution of the drone industry and furthering the development of BVLOS flight. Our Value Investment Program (VIP) is designed to accelerate drone startups and experienced operators alike into BVLOS operations, providing full support with every step of the journey and enabling you to scale your use of Halo as you grow. To find out more about the opportunities provided by the Halo VIP program, please get in touch!
- Qualcomm has laid out a detailed guide and Q&A that explains a number of aspects of 5G operations and what this means for users and businesses
- Ericsson has released a white paper detailing how mobile networks have the potential to unlock advanced BVLOS drone operations
- This article from Vodafone highlights new technology that can track autonomous vehicles with extremely high accuracy