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First Cross-Border Drone Flight Over Mobile Network

I got to see innovations by the Latvian MNO, LMT at MWC 2019. I wrote about it on the Operator Watch Blog as well as 3G4G Blog. Now LMT has announced that they have performed a unique cross-border drone flight.


The Google translated press release said:

The operation of such flights is associated with a number of unknowns, including mobile network coverage in the air. To test this, on September 2, LMT conducted one of the world's first fully remotely controlled drone cross-border flights out of sight, where a connection to the mobile communication network was used to control the drone. The drone crossed the Latvian-Estonian border, changing mobile operators, but the pilot did not lose control of the drone's control.

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Previous tests performed by LMT in Latvia show that the signal strength of the mobile communication network is even better in some places in the air than on the ground, where it is disturbed by obstacles such as thick walls and trees. On the other hand, in this flight from Latvia to Estonia, it was possible to test how it is possible to provide an international drone flight in the mobile communication network when switching from one operator's network to another.


The first cross-border flight of the drone started on the Latvian side, the drone took off near Ainaži, but ended with a landing on the outskirts of Ikla in Estonia. The total flight length has reached 8 kilometers. A multi-rotor drone has taken off in the air, adapted to the possibilities of remote control. LMT together with the company SPH-engineering developed a prototype device that is mounted on a drone and connected to its control unit. This device is equipped with two SIM cards to ensure a continuous connection of the communication channel to the drone and minimize the risks at the border crossing when it is necessary to change the mobile network operator from the LMT network in Latvia to the Estonian operator network.

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In order to develop drone innovations in Latvia, LMT together with partners from other countries also participates in the European drone ecosystem development project COMP4DRONES. LMT is also a member of the global unmanned aerial vehicle traffic management association GUTMA and participates in the development of GSMA drone solutions of the international mobile communications association.

A video of the trial is as follows:

GSMA has more details on this trial as follows:

Commercial drones can help many industries by reducing costs, improving safety, efficiency and delivering a variety of new services not previously possible. The total number of drones will reach to 86.5 million by 2025[1] and total drones value chain revenue will grow to over $14 billion in 2025 worldwide. Despite this there are still many challenges that the industry needs to tackle.

With the purpose to support safe Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operation through cellular connectivity on September 2, 2020, mobile operator LMT successfully completed the first-ever cross-border drone flight conducted entirely over the mobile network. The drone was flown from Latvia to Estonia without losing mobile network connectivity, demonstrating the power of GSM networks to fully enable drone missions well beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) providing connectivity, identity and navigation. Safely and successfully navigating drones beyond line sight is essential to accelerate the growth cellular connected drones and deliver valuable remote delivery, monitoring and communication services.

The flight started in Latvia and ended in Estonia, with the multirotor drone traveling a total of 8km. The drone was equipped with two SIM cards – one from each country – and switched from one to the other mid-flight as it crossed the border. To accomplish the BVLOS flight, UA ground control software (UgCS) was used in conjunction with a custom-built command and control modem built in collaboration with SPH Engineering. The cross border demonstration showed that it is technically feasible to switch networks within a few milliseconds, which allows the drone operator to safely maintain control of the UA during the whole flight without losing connection.

This demonstration was a meaningful step toward understanding the technological capabilities of cellular connected drones, expanding the scope of potential applications. One current example is linked to Rail Baltica, the international railway project spanning the Baltic states, which is considering 5G technologies for potential use in railway infrastructure. The ability to easily cross borders, while maintaining connectivity, make it possible for drones to participate in railway safety measures by monitoring and maintaining tracks in border regions.

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The GSMA believes that mobile networks are a crucial component of enabling commercial drone operation at low altitude Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS).

The GSMA is constantly looking on how mobile networks are helping to support a variety of new innovative solutions beyond the traditional consumer type of communication. As part of this effort the GSMA created a Drone Interest Group (DIG) consisting with over 50 members, including LMT, that are contributing to support drone operation through cellular connectivity. The interest group brings together mobile operators, aviation industry participants to develop recommendations on how to incorporate drones into airspace and how to use the mobile network as a communication channel for aviation usage.

In addition, the GSMA and the Global UTM Association (GUTMA) has set up joint drone working group the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity (ACJA).

ACJA is a forum where members of the telecom, including LMT, and aviation industries work together to unlock the full potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as simply drones) by allowing them to operate beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.

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