Thursday 28 September 2017

Drones, More Drones & Droneway

I have written about Drones and Balloons in the past, mainly to BT/EE. Take for instance this presentation by Mansoor Hanif at TIP Summit and this one on Flying Small Cells. In addition I have also talked about Telefonica's Nano cell, which is a small cell on a drone; Verizon's 'flying cell-site' and AT&T's flying COW.

This week the US operator Sprint announced that they are trialing their Magic boxes on drones. Here is a video on that:

Back in August, IEEE Spectrum ran an article on how Flying Cell Towers Could Aid Search and Rescue. Base stations carried by drones would form an ad hoc network and connect first responders.

Picture Source: IEEE Spectrum

From the IEEE Spectrum article:

An aerial communications system supported by drones could be deployed much faster and operate with minimal interference. In 2013, we started to think about what such a drone-based communications system for public safety agencies might look like. We knew it would need a shared radio-frequency channel for first responders, drone-portable base stations, a power supply, and a digital database for exchanging information. We would also need controllers that would be easy enough for a licensed drone pilot to operate in a crisis.

Our first major challenge was to find a base station small enough for a drone to support. Drones under 25 kilograms—the limit now imposed by U.S. air-safety regulators—can carry a maximum payload of about 2 kg, so we would need a base station that weighed less, even with its battery.

Finally, my search led me to a startup named Virtual Network Communications. This company, based in Chantilly, Va., sells a product called a GreenCell that seemed suitable. It’s a scalable LTE base station, known as a picocell, which is typically used to extend the reach of an existing network but can also generate its own network. The base station contains an E-UTRAN Node B radio with two antennas and a credit-card-size component called a Micro Evolved Packet Core, which uses LTE technology to form an ad hoc network with nearby radios. Then, that local network connects to a nationwide cellular network.

With these components, our GreenCell can support communications for up to 128 users at a time from a distance of up to about 2 kilometers on any LTE frequency. Better yet, it measures just 12.5 by 12.5 centimeters and weighs only 2 kg with its battery, just light enough to be lifted by a drone.

Once we had found a suitable base station, we still needed to find a suitable drone. Ideally, it would be affordable and be capable of flying for 10 to 12 hours before needing a recharge. Unfortunately, no such drone exists today. Most commercial drones can stay aloft for fewer than 45 minutes.

After some research, I found a company named CyPhy Works, which has developed a drone powered through a 150-meter cord that extends up from a grid or generator. Technically, this drone could stay in the air for as long as it had access to a power supply on the ground. But in a disaster scenario, it would have to be tethered to a van loaded with a generator and fuel. That would limit it to serving the same road-accessible places to which mobile units already travel. Another drawback: The drone’s tether restricts its mobility once it’s in the air. We wanted to be able to reconfigure our network in an instant.

We briefly considered using balloons instead of drones, but we discovered through trial and error that balloons are difficult to reposition and hold in place, especially during high winds.

We decided instead to use the AR200 drone from AirRobot, a company based in Arnsberg, Germany. The AR200 has six rotors that allow it to hover more steadily than the usual four. And because the AirRobot drone is battery powered, it can zoom off to any location.

In summer, Qualcomm unveiled [PDF report] the results of a months-long drone trial program, which found LTE networks today already provide the aerial connectivity necessary to support commercial unmanned aerial vehicle deployments. But the tech giant noted some network optimizations will be necessary to take drone deployments to new heights. As per their blog post:

During the field trial, approximately 1,000 flights were performed to collect datasets that were post processed and analyzed. We also performed simulations to complement field trial results by allowing study of performance tradeoffs when the network is serving many mobile devices and LTE-connected drones simultaneously over a wide area. Simulations also enabled rapid testing of parameter and feature changes that are more difficult to study in a commercial network.

The field trial demonstrated that LTE networks can support safe drone operation in real-world environments. Our findings showed that existing commercial cellular networks can provide coverage to drones at low altitudes up to 400 feet AGL. Our test drones also showed seamless handovers between different base stations during flights. Below is a glimpse of these findings.

According to Mobile World Live,

The head of AT&T’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) business development team said the operator is working with regulatory authorities and standards organisations to “unlock” the potential of drones.

Speaking with Mobile World Live, Greg Belaus said many tests of drones on cellular networks so far have been conducted at a height of 400 feet. In the US, Belaus explained that airspace is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 rules. Belaus said “a lot of work” on drones right now is focused on what needs to be done to open that area for drone services.

There is an interesting AT&T Flying COW presentation on Youtube for anyone interested, here.

Finally, looks like "Droneway" may be becoming a reality soon. As one of the partners involved in the project, I may not be at a liberty to say much but this photo of the article below (click to expand) provides an idea 😊

*Full Disclosure: I work for Parallel Wireless as a Senior Director, Strategic Marketing. This blog is maintained in my personal capacity and expresses my own views, not the views of my employer or anyone else. Anyone who knows me well would know this.

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