Wednesday 17 August 2016

Drone cells are becoming a reality

Back in early 2015, the then EE CEO Olaf Swantee said, "We will begin exploring 'Air Masts', essentially aerial small cells positioned in the sky above a hard-to-reach area, using either tethered balloons or unmanned craft, bridging the UK's transmission gap."

The vision has not changed a lot. I recently blogged about 'EE's vision of Ultra-Reliable Emergency Network'. If you look at the slide above you will notice temporary solutions include Air masts, UAV's and Network in a box (NIB).

Nokia recently did a trial with EE where they used a drone to carry a tiny base station to remote areas around Inverness. Weighing in at only 2 kg, the Nokia Flexi Zone Pico cell has all the punch of LTE in a very compact package, allowing 4G services to be provided wherever a drone can reach. High quality LTE voice calls between responders, video streaming and up to 150 Mbps data throughput were all achieved, with no need for a connection to an external core network.

While it doesn't exactly say the area that was covered, I would expect it to be able to do at least 1 km diameter to be effective in an emergency scenario.

According to a recent International Business Times article, US operator AT&T is trying something similar to deal with the struggle to provide enough wireless data are large venue events to please customers. The mobile operator says that drones known as "Flying Cell on Wings (COWs)" could make all the difference. The idea would be that the drone would be tethered to the ground so they would hover in one place, sort of like a portable hovering small cell. 

Finally, Ericsson and China Mobile conduct world’s first 5G drone prototype field trial. In their recent press release it says:

In the trial, held in Wuxi in China’s Jiangsu province, a drone was flown using operator’s cellular network with 5G-enabled technologies and with handovers across multiple sites. In order to demonstrate the concept’s validity in a real-world setting, the handovers were performed between sites that were simultaneously in use by commercial mobile phone users.

The potential use cases for this technology include mission-critical applications such as support for emergency services. However, end-to-end low latency needs to be guaranteed by the operator’s network to ensure the safety and reliability of such services.

I am sure we will be hearing more on this topic soon.