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5G Drone Cell Towers

I was involved with looking at how Aerostats & Drones can help bring connectivity, especially in hard to reach areas or in case of disaster recovery and other emergencies. I wrote about it in detail here.

Last month, 3GPP did a summary of all things 3GPP is doing in this area.

To address the needs of a new and quickly maturing sector, there has been a lot of activity in the 3GPP Working Groups to ensure that the 5G system will meet the connectivity needs of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) – consisting of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka. drones) and UAV controllers under the watchful eye of UAS traffic management.

Release 15 - Enhanced LTE Support for Aerial Vehicles (TR 36.777)

A study to Investigate the ability for aerial vehicles to be served using LTE networks is now published, identifying further performance enhancements for UE-based solutions, Network-based solutions, downlink interference mitigation, uplink interference mitigation, mobility performance and aerial UE Identification.

Also, in Release 15, there were enhancements to TS 36.331 (Section 5.5.4 - Measurement report triggering) to address the issue of aerial UE interference to the base station (eNodeB). The enhancements included the addition of two reporting events - H1 (above) and H2 (below) UE height thresholds - to help the eNodeB to see the UAV and to deal with any potential interference. Other measures for signaling and to reduce interference by the UAV were also added.

Release 16 - Remote Identification of Unmanned Aerial Systems (TS 22.125, Section 5)

3GPP SA1 has completed a study into the potential requirements and use cases for remote identification and on the services to be offered based on remote identification of the UAS.
Release 17 - Study on supporting Unmanned Aerial Systems Connectivity, Identification, and Tracking (TR 23.754)

Looking at the architecture and system aspects of command and control functions, having identified the UAS, this study looks at the extent to which the 3GPP system can enable UAS components to establish the necessary connectivity between each other and UAS Traffic Management (UTM) – for both line of sight connectivity and non-line of sight connectivity, and on the detection and reporting of unauthorized UAVs towards the UTM.

Release 17 - Study on application layer support for Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)

The App. dedicated group - 3GPP SA6 – are studying the use cases and requirements (from 3GPP SA1) regarding UAS identification and tracking. Taking the service requirements resulting from TS 22.125 - SA6 is now looking at the potential impact on the application layer, in particular the application support/enabler functionalities for UTM and the service interactions between UAS and the UTM (e.g. fly route authorization, location management, group communication support).

The group is considering architectures and solutions already developed for mission critical and V2X services, for re-use in aerial systems (See 3GPP SP-181252).

Release 17 - 5G Enhancement for UAVs (TS22.125; TS22.261)

To further meet the needs of 5G connectivity of drones – this work will produce new KPIs and communication needs of the UAV with a 3GPP subscription. Specifically, requirements relating to the following will be documented: KPIs based on communication service, KPIs for command and control traffic, On-board radio access node (UxNB), service restriction for UAV, Network exposure for the UAV.

There are lot of other references available on 3GPP website here.
Picture Source: Forbes

Forbes has an article about a company called Spooky Action that has the goal of providing drone-based cell phone towers, especially in Africa and the global south.

Rahul Tiwari, the founder says in place of those towers, drones the size of dining tables can provide LTE coverage, use about as much energy as a microwave oven and be connected up to solar panels on the ground.

“We can cover 20-30 square miles with a drone that size,” Tiwari said, “And they can stay in the air for a month at a time thanks to their tether.”

According to Tiwari, having a drone above your town or village isn’t the noise-pest you might assume – Drones scale negatively, so as drones get bigger, they produce less sound.

“The laws of physics are on our side,” he said, “A typical cell phone is 100-150 feet tall, but we can get our drones up to 400 feet, so they don’t have to be right in the middle of a town and the noise is less.”

Even if this concept sounds like science fiction, the proof is already in the pudding – in November, one of the TeleLift drones was providing high-bandwidth mobile internet coverage of a wind-surfing competition in France.



“We had winds of up to 40-50 knots, which was too strong for the windsurfers, but was no trouble at all for the drone,” Tiwari said.

Lightning, however, is still a problem – but the drones can be hauled down in a hurry if need be.

According to Tiwari, the portability is another advantage of a drone over a traditional tower.

“Imagine a town that can be covered with five drones,” he said, “But if everyone goes to work, the drones can be redeployed closer to where the people are and move back to the residential areas at night.”

“You can land and take off based on need – if there’s no demand, you can keep them on land,” he said.

You can see Spooky Action story in video below



With 3GPP bringing in new features that will allow some of these things to become parts of standards, it will become easier for start-ups and other companies to bring innovative solutions for challenging situations.

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