Can 5G Truly Enhance Apps Powering Unmanned Systems?
By Roger Billings
Tuesday, July 19, 2022 | Comments
For years now, the public, business community and governments have waited patiently for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), to finally make good on their early promise.

Without a doubt, drones have already carved a prevalent place in society. Drones today deliver medicine, inspect pipelines, monitor crops and help emergency responders safely scout hazard zones. Still, a mix of regulatory and technological hurdles have stymied the technology from reaching its full potential, especially with regard to enterprise use. Thanks to the ongoing rollout of 5G, the fifth and most recent generation of broadband cellular network, drone development shows signs of taking a giant leap forward.

Across the globe, scores of businesses, government bodies and scientists have begun to turn to 5G to extract dramatically improved performance from their drones or build groundbreaking applications that help drones take advantage of 5G’s expanded capabilities.

Building Momentum
In April, a power company in Australia successfully tested the ability of a 5G-enabled drone to assist with power restoration efforts, according to news reports. The company equipped the drone with cloud connectivity, AI and a ultra high-definition (UHD) camera that provided images to managers that assisted them with assessing damage.

Should a storm knock out power lines or cause other damage, the drone showed it can provide valuable information to help determine what workers, equipment and materials would be required to make repairs.

In Korea, not long after the pandemic struck, a Korean telecom deployed a 5G-connected and ultraviolet-lamp wielding robot to sanitize surfaces and check the body temperatures of visitors.

New York state announced the establishment of a corridor between the cities of Rome and Syracuse that would act as the country’s first testing range for UAVs relying on 5G wireless networks last fall.

To explain the reasons for the investment, New York Governor Kathy Hochul cited numerous industries and public services that stand to benefit from the development of 5G-enabled drones, including agriculture, forest management, transportation and public safety.

The innovation that 5G enables won’t appear overnight. In previous upgrades to cellular network technology, we’ve seen how progress comes in phases. What’s different about 5G is how the technology has packed so many improvements into this generation, including more speed, higher capacity, expanded coverage and lower latency.

Supercharging Drone Evolution with 5G
Simply said, 5G has begun to help accelerate drone evolution.

Ever since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced he intended to make 30-minute drone delivery a reality, the public’s appetite for everything drone has been insatiable. But in the nine years since, Amazon’s plan of dispersing legions of UAVs to deliver goods has yet to get off the ground.

One significant obstacle during that period was federal authorities were still figuring out how to ensure safe drone flight in U.S. cities. One requirement handed down by the federal authorities has been particularly difficult to overcome for would-be drone delivery services.

The government demands human operators maintain visual contact with drones and fly no higher than 400 feet. That essentially maximizes a drone’s range to several city blocks and that’s far too little for home delivery. Among the fears was an operator could lose contact and then control of the craft, allowing it to crash into something or someone.

The dynamics change when 5G enters the picture.

Because 5G provides more reliable connectivity and faster response times — meaning a drone receives and acts more rapidly after receiving pilot commands — the technology enables drone operators to safely control UAVs via virtual line of sight (VLOS). The idea of VLOS is gaining traction with aviation authorities in numerous places around the world, and if it happens, it would represent a breakthrough for drone-delivery companies.

Along these lines, U.S. drone operators received a bit of good news in recent weeks. In April, President Joe Biden’s administration asked Congress for help in executing a plan that would attempt to reduce the risks posed by drones aircraft as well as establish “clear standards for legal” uses. The more clarity regulators provide, the better.

Upgrades to Cellular Network Technologies
Meanwhile, other industries including broadcast television, agriculture, logistics and industry have begun to see enormous potential 5G can offer.

Companies that rely on UAVs have begun to tap into 5G-powered private networks because of the wide-area, high bandwidth and deterministic low-latency connections it can offer, according to Philippe Soutaer, lead 5G innovation for enterprise at Proximus, a Belgium-based telecom operator.

An example, based on past projects, he gave is while flying a drone and streaming video to an application, typically that feed will include some delay, making it harder to control from afar. Typically, glass-to-glass video delay resides between 0.5 and 1 second of which the 4G or Wi-Fi connection only takes up around 50 milliseconds (ms). The largest latency chunk is due to the digital video encoding itself. However, when the video can rely on a deterministic, low-latency and guaranteed connection, which is something a private 5G network offers, the total video latency drops to 200 ms or lower. The same applies to remote control of robots or heavy machinery.

According to Soutaer, a logistics company in Belgium is testing a drone that runs on a 5G private network, to scan barcodes on boxes as part of warehouse inventory management. The drone can be equipped with compute power to process the barcodes, but computing images takes time. During the processing the drone isn’t doing anything but hovering, which wastes battery and overall solution speed.

The stable and deterministic high bandwidth 5G connection enables the drone to offload the images quickly to a larger edge compute unit or cloud where processing occurs more rapidly. This enables the drone to simply fly and scan inventory faster and cover more ground on a single battery charge. This enables the whole concept to scale.

This could have been done on Wi-Fi as well in a warehouse situation, but you would have many more unstable moments in the connection due to Wi-Fi roaming from one access point to the other. In cellular you can cover a large area with one cell, which removes the possible roaming instabilities.

As Soutaer’s anecdote illustrates, upgrades to cellular technology spur innovation. This is consistent with what we’ve seen following the release of previous network generations.

The way events typically unfold following a cellular technology upgrade goes something like this: early adopters accumulate expertise first and then beat competitors to the punch by developing pioneering apps that provide competitive advantages. The last stage is a sad one. When it comes to adoption and innovation, those who drag their feet miss out on critical opportunities.

Roger Billings is 5G strategy and global carrier operations southeast leader at Cradlepoint.

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