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Blog · 23 Mar 2021

How 5G is pushing drone technology forward

5G’s ultra-low latency and reliable connections are fundamental to the latest drone technology use cases.

David Wilks
Drone lead

Through my work, I know that drone technology, supported by a ubiquitous 5G network, has tremendous potential to help humankind.

The ultra-reliable, ultra-low-latency communication links delivered by 5G are proving crucial to the search for new and safe ways to use drones to protect people.

Technology that protects human life

From their earliest development, innovators have explored how drones can be used in emergency situations for the public good. In 2018, we worked as part of a consortium to investigate a variety of use cases, including how drones with mounted cameras could be used to scope out disaster zones before delivering relief supplies, all without putting human lives at risk. Under strict regulation, we used 5G network slicing to deliver a continuous, low-latency service, combined with edge computing that made sure the autonomous drone could react fast enough to avoid obstacles. 5G’s generous bandwidth meant the drone’s video footage was uploaded in real time and emergency services teams could view live footage of disasters remotely and safely.

In many cases, BT uses drones to help maintain critical communication links where it would be dangerous for people to get involved. We’ve explored using drones to deliver the spare parts needed to maintain telephone exchanges in the Scottish islands when severe weather conditions made normal deliveries unsafe. Thanks to drone technology, we’ve been able to make sure the emergency services have vital continuous service. And in our Openreach division, we use drones to pull fibre optic cables across difficult and dangerous terrains, so we don’t have to put people at risk. Our drones thread cables through the trees of wooded valleys, across cliffs and lakes, and through flood-damaged areas - anywhere the land is unstable or unsafe. We’re also looking at using drones to provide temporary network coverage in an emergency. If we lose a 4G base station due to flooding or some other natural disaster, our fastest fix may be using a tethered drone as a temporary mast until we can make a more permanent repair.

What’s holding back drone development?

If drones are to fulfil their potential, two things need to fall into place: 1) drones must be allowed to fly beyond the visual line of sight, and 2) we must have ubiquitous coverage.

Currently, a drone can only legally fly as far as the operator can see it, but there are loads of situations where this factor gets in the way of the drone’s ability to support and protect human life. Whether it’s flying deep into disaster areas or getting to a fire as quickly as possible to pass back information to the emergency services, the next step for drones involves putting regulation in place to allow extended flights. We’re part of a consortium working on the Future Flight Challenge, a government UK Research and Innovation initiative that’s looking at putting in place an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system to safely coordinate drone flights with other aircraft using the airspace. This needs to be backed up by a robust regulatory framework for drones that places public safety at the heart of every development.

Mobile networks are critical for drone operation beyond the line of sight, because if you can’t see your drone, your controlling radio signal can’t ‘see’ it either. 5G is the natural technology partner for drone development, and continuous coverage will be crucial to the safe command and control of drones in beyond line-of-sight situations.

5G technology massively increases a drone’s capabilities

A connection to a 5G network means a drone can send information back to base in real time. Early drone technology meant all the information from drone-mounted cameras, sensors and telemetry could only be uploaded from the drone’s hard drive once it had landed. A 5G connection changes all that and opens up new possibilities.

In agriculture, a drone can inspect crops and feed data directly to those working on the ground, telling a tractor precisely where to spread fertiliser. In ports, a drone can deliver high-definition video footage to a video analytics solution that can identify objects, people and even faces, triggering actions, such as photography and photogrammetry of shipments in real-time - measuring the amount of material in a coal shipment, for example. These operations need a lot of compute power and, before 5G edge computing, meant landing the drone, downloading the information onto a broadband circuit and only then accessing the compute power the calculations needed. With 5G, results are available straightaway, rather than waiting days.

When it comes to safely coordinating drones or non-flying, unmanned vehicles to perform a task, private 5G networks will be key to providing reliable communication links between them. An ultra-reliable, ultra-low latency network will be essential and, the more autonomous these devices become, the lower the latency that’ll be needed.

Drones make up just a small number of the use cases for 5G and, in reality, we’ve yet to grasp its full potential. Any organisation can help to push the frontiers forward by designing a use case and then exploring how 5G can bring it to life.

If you’d like to talk through what 5G can mean for your business, please get in touch with your account manager. We’re here to help.

Discover how your business can exploit technology and innovation both now and in the future by downloading our ‘Winning the innovation race’ brochure.

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