February 2017: Wireless in the Sky: Networking Strategies for Autonomous Drones/UAVs

Bottom Line: Drones are gaining tremendous market attention, fueled by grandiose plans for autonomous systems, which are in stark contrast to the solutions deployed today. Drones need command and control and LTE is being touted as fit for this purpose. While LTE has many favorable characteristics for drone command and control, its limitations must be recognized and solutions targeted accordingly.

Executive Summary

Unmanned airborne vehicles (UAV), aka drones, have seen robust market adoption fueled primarily by consumer/hobbyist and commercial demand for photography, videography and media and entertainment. In Exhibit 1, drone shipments in the United States are forecast to increase from 2.5 million in 2016, to 7.0 million in 2020. This forecast, which was developed by the Federal Aviation Authority, (FAA) and its partners, predicts that the consumer/hobbyist market will remain larger than the commercial market for drones, and that annual sales to the commercial market will remain relatively static between 2017 and 2020.

Companies like Amazon have pulled drones into the limelight with innovative concepts for autonomous drone deliveries. However, most of the proposed innovations are not possible today because of the available technology and regulations, which are necessarily conservative. Industry players like Amazon, AT&T, BSNL, CNN, NASA, Nokia, PrecisionHawk and Qualcomm have been conducting technology trials, with the aim of addressing regulatory constraints and advancing drone technology capabilities. These efforts are loosely related to the UAS Traffic Management (UTM) initiative that is being spearheaded by NASA. Many of the players involved in UTM recognize that effective drone identification and command and control capabilities are needed to safely address regulatory constraints. Many proposals and technology trials have targeted LTE for drone command and control so that drones can operate safely beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), and over crowds at events and in urban environments. Other technologies such as ADS-B has also been used as a complement to LTE. ADS-B is widely used as an alternative to radar for air traffic control, and has been implemented in drones by DJI and PrecisionHawk using uAvionix technology. While ADS-B enables basic drone proximity information it lacks the versatility offered by LTE, which is needed for many proposed drone use-cases.

LTE technology trials for drones have been conducted by a variety of companies including Qualcomm. These trials have demonstrated that while LTE networks are capable of supporting drones up to altitudes of 400 feet, dedicated optimization efforts are needed to address changes in handover boundaries and the potential for increased interference relative to terrestrial operations. While these trials demonstrate the suitability for LTE to support drone command and control requirements, we believe that practical use-cases will initially be targeted towards isolated implementations to ensure that network performance is not unduly taxed, particularly in capacity constrained environments. These isolated implementations will evolve towards larger scale deployments over the next five years as technologies mature and regulations evolve. In addition, we expect that drone solutions will capitalize on advancements in autonomous vehicle technologies, and the ultra-low latency and ultra-broadband capabilities of 5G once it is available.

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