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Cellular-connected Drones to Form Part of Vodafone’s ‘Telco as a Service’ (‘TaaS’) Model

Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) has been one of the most talked about thing in the drone industry, for a very long time. As this article points out, countries around the world are amending their drone policies so that they can allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight for maximum efficiency. Unlike VLOS flights, which are operated within the pilot’s line of sight, BVLOS flights are flown beyond the visual range. BVLOS capabilities enable a drone to cover far greater distances.

BVLOS has numerous applications and is cost-effective. It enables service providers to conduct complex drone operations and facilitate drones to fly without any human interference. But, drones have to become ‘airworthy’ to get there. BVLOS flights are mainly performed in infrastructure inventory, for monitoring large areas and creating orthophoto maps. 

Drones flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight are controlled by data provided by on-board instruments. Information is transmitted via a telemetry link that informs the operator about the position, altitude, speed and direction of flight as well as all relevant parameters of the aircraft. However, UAVs flying BVLOS can also change flight parameters and control sensors to collect data.

Pilots are trained differently to fly drones BVLOS. They need to have theoretical and practical training to obtain a UAVO qualification certificate with the authority to perform BVLOS flights. During training they acquire knowledge of navigation on unmanned flights, meteorology, flight performance and planning, and flight rules. These are necessary due to the additional capabilities of unmanned system.

Back in November, Vodafone and Ericsson announced that they have successfully tested safe sky corridors for drones using intelligent aspects of the mobile network. Their announcement said:

The technological breakthrough will allow professional drone operators, critical national infrastructure providers and emergency services to deliver medical, commercial and industrial supplies safe in the knowledge that they will arrive at the correct destination on time whilst remaining connected to the mobile network.

In a proof of concept trial conducted this month at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany, the companies used intelligence from the network to produce coverage maps, which enabled the drone to stay in areas with a good signal up in the air.  They also collated anonymised mobile user information so the drone could avoid heavily crowded areas down on the ground. They did this using information obtained via Vodafone’s ‘Network Exposure Layer’, which makes network data easy to utilise, whilst keeping it secure.

Vodafone can provide these two key pieces of information to trusted third parties via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable users to quickly and easily plot a pre-determined path for the drone, ensuring constant contact with the control centre, even when out of sight. In this scenario, Vodafone could offer a hospital access, via an API, to non-sensitive network information to send a drone to a scene of an accident.

As part of a separate test simulation, Vodafone in Spain recently flew a lightweight defibrillator to the scene of a cardiac arrest patient using a drone controlled by 5G.

Cellular-connected drones form part of Vodafone’s multi-year journey to redefine its technology architecture on a ‘Telco as a Service’ (‘TaaS’) model, based on platforms that deliver new software, video and data applications at scale. By extracting intelligence from its converged pan-European and African networks, combined with the use of open source software components, Vodafone can offer developers and businesses a cost-effective and quick way of automating services for millions of customers.

As part of the trial, Vodafone and Ericsson also explored ways to use the network to control key features of the drone such as being able to improve the definition of the video instantly without impacting other services. This is particularly useful in situations where the video is not required for the entire mission, like being able to inspect a suspension bridge or check on the condition of a mountaineer.

Embedded below is the video of this shared by Vodafone. Press release from Ericsson is available here.

We have seen in many different posts how different operators are trying to assess how drones can help then create new services thereby opening up a new source of revenue. Some of then are in the links below.

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