The Drone market, particularly the BVLOS UAV segment, is growing exponentially, and expanding in leaps and bounds. Forecasts predict the global drone economy is expected to reach $90 billion by the year 2030, as commercial, enterprise, logistics and other industries embrace the advantages drones have to offer.
Drones are currently seeing growing use in all fields and in all industries, ranging from agriculture, utilities, oil & gas, infrastructure, all the way through to journalism and cinematography. In each of these cases, the inherent advantages of using UAVs to perform work that was previously undertaken by humans is clear to all and is the driving force behind the expansion of the market.
In this position paper, we will outline why BVLOS operations are the future of the drone industry, and how we expect drones to securely operate with its control center. We will also lay out why we believe mobile communications are the ideal and preferred spectrum for drone command and control.
What is BVLOS?
BVLOS, or Beyond Visual Line of Sight, is the operation of a drone or other form of Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS) where the distance between the operator and the UAS is larger than Visual Line of Sight (VLOS, or approx. 300 meters) or Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS, or approx. 750 meters). In VLOS and EVLOS operations, the operator must remain in full visual control of the vehicle at all times, curtailing its operational distance and limiting the applications in which the UAS can be used. VLOS or EVLOS operations are more limited, but hobbyists, videographers, and industrial use-cases can execute these options and take good advantage of the short distances allowed for activities such as infrastructure or on-site oil & gas inspections.
The ability to fly longer distances BVLOS has advantages for numerous fields and industries, and can be applied in a wide range of use cases and applications. The entire UAV industry is waiting for the final rulings and regulations from Civil Aviation Authorities around the world, including the FAA, EASA and other regulators to begin operating BVLOS in earnest.
A new understanding of BVLOS
While BVLOS is mostly perceived as the pilot’s ability to fly a drone beyond its visual line of sight, the truth is that BVLOS is much more than that and includes two major industry goals:
The ability to take off, operate and land the UAS outside the visual line of sight without requiring it to be led by a trained pilot.
Enabling a single operator to supervise and control multiple UAS simultaneously from a Drone Network Operation Center.
BVLOS operations coupled with use of a DNOC (Drone Network Operation Center) will exponentially increase the possible UAS applications along with the distance. Agricultural operators will be able to cover fields which are tens or hundreds of acres in size with many UAS at once; utilities operators can simultaneously use UAS to inspect miles worth of cables or pipes, and retailers and fulfillment centers can carry out greater numbers of efficient mid-mile or last-mile deliveries. These are just a few of the use cases which are made available to the drone market once operators can take full advantage of flying their drones beyond the Visual Line of Sight.
Why Mobile communications?
A key component to flying drones BVLOS is the ability for a network to see and command drones when they are beyond the visual line of site of the drone operator. Currently, mobile networks, such as 3G, 4G/LTE and the currently being deployed 5G, are globally deployed, the common technological standards and globally harmonized bands. These networks offer a readily available resource for drone operators around the world that need to be able to connect with their drones over long distances. The widespread use of cellular phones and other mobile devices, as well as the proliferation of telecom companies who are striving to increase their coverage over as wide an area as possible, creates a fortuitous situation where drone operators can benefit from the wide range of communications networks made available to them without the need to find new spectrums and deploy new networks, which takes years, or create a new communications paradigm.
Why won’t alternatives work?
Currently the two main alternatives to mobile communications are Unlicensed RF and Satellite Communications (SatCom)
Unlicensed RF – Provides excellent C2 (Command and Control) capabilities but are limited in range, reliability and in application by requiring line of sight. RF bands are unlicensed, and are subject to interference. RF requires expensive, dedicated transmitters and receivers for each device, making it a challenge to operate multiple drones simultaneously. Without a widespread RF network, similar to the mobile networks which already exist, RF cannot be considered a viable alternative to mobile communications, only a supplementary communications stream
Satellite Communications – Can be used in areas that are more remote, but both the modem as well as the data costs are prohibitively expensive at this time. The latency and low bandwidth are not ideal for BVLOS drone operations. Until prices can be lowered and data transmission speed increased, SatCom can be considered a supplementary communications stream, best used for areas where there is no other form of communications available.
Importance of 5G
The 5G networks being deployed around the world provide an increase in communications reliability, latency, security and reception. Using 5G networks, we are able to transfer data quicker, with lower latency, and increased bandwidth compared to 4G. This in turn provides more convenient and effective communications for drone operators, decreasing the risk of disconnection, and ensuring smooth data streams. Another key advantage to 5G is network slicing which, if done properly, can provide a slice of the 5G network dedicated to UAS and providing the network-protection and prioritization that many in the aviation world desire for the operation of UAS.
BVLOS operations are the future of the drone industry and require a shift in thinking from the LOS and ELOS equivalents that are operated today. Combining the BVLOS concept with the notion of Drone Network Operating Centers operating entire fleets of drones BVLOS, requires us to look at which communications networks can support such a concept. After looking at the available options, it becomes clear that mobile communications and mobile networks are the only effective communications network which can ensure continued connection between the UAV and the operator over long distances and large fleets.
A purpose built solution like the Elsight Halo allows operators to maintain constant connection with their drones. Halo supports multiple network providers and uses automatic link monitoring to ensure constant connection. Utilizing up to four different cellular links from multiple network providers, Halo monitors all available connections and seamlessly switches to the best possible option should dropout occur. Halo also uses AI-powered cellular bonding to aggregate the bandwidth of all usable connections into one robust and cybersecure link. The platform is 5G-ready and can be easily integrated into a variety of drone platforms, enabling you to be ready for next-generation use cases such as BVLOS.