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Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom Briefly Starts Drone War

Back in 2017, we were discussing about drones and helikites to bring temporary coverage in areas that have either no coverage or have lost coverage due to some or other reason. Things have certainly moved on in the last few years as we look at connected drones to help solve problems.

In a LinkedIn post couple of weeks ago, Santiago (Yago) Tenorio, Fellow and Network Architecture Director at Vodafone posted on LinkedIn on how "Vodafone has been able to transport urgent nutrient solutions to premature babies across a 40-hectare hospital – setting the stage for future innovation in medical deliveries". 

This briefly started a 'we did it first' discussion with rival Deutsche Telekom's SVP of Group Technology for Innovation, Arash Ashouriha, posting their achievement from 2020. Others from Vodafone jumped in to point out all the other demos that Vodafone has done over the years. 

So what has Vodafone been up to with all the drone demos? Here is a short summary:

May 2022 - Germany: 5G-connected drones have been used to transport nutrition solutions for premature babies for the first time, in a successful trial at University Hospital Düsseldorf (UKD). 

Each morning, staff in the central pharmacy at UKD prepare parenteral nutrient solutions for premature babies in care of the children’s ward. Such medication would normally be transported across the 40-hectare hospital site through a pneumatic tube system. However, the system is not accessible from the children’s ward due to the complexity and expense involved in expanding it to new buildings. This means pharmacy staff must rely on the hospital courier service, which is slower and less efficient.

Vodafone has been working with the hospital to find new, innovative solutions to improve medicine delivery services across the hospital. In a recent test flight, a 5G-connected drone successfully delivered a nutritional package to the children’s ward from the central pharmacy. The drone covered the 450-metre distance in less than 40 seconds. 

While the test flight was monitored by humans, the speed and low-latency of 5G connectivity means similar flights could be completed autonomously, without manual control. Through 5G, a drone can transmit data on its air position in real-time. This is a key factor in enabling safer autonomous flights and air traffic.

April 2022 - Romania: Vodafone Romania and Salvamont, the country’s National Mountain Rescuers Association, have launched two digital solutions designed to help accelerate search and rescue operations.

Connectivity can be limited in mountainous areas – high rocky walls can block the reach of mobile signal generated by ground-based telecommunication towers. This can make it more difficult for people to contact emergency services if they have suffered an accident, or for mountain rescue teams to find people who are lost.

Vodafone has developed a solution to tackle this problem by using drones to extend mobile signal coverage into those hard-to-reach areas. By installing and attaching ground-based telecoms equipment on means of transportation suitable to reach remote locations, such as all-terrain vehicles, Vodafone’s mobile network can be connected via satellite.

Vodafone also installs radio equipment on a professionally piloted drone which is flown above designated search areas. This system has the capacity to generate a mobile signal (voice and data), including 5G, within a radius of up to 10km, creating a temporary network to support emergency rescue missions. Any mobile phone in that area connects to the network automatically, regardless of the operator or network provider, enabling victims of an accident to make an emergency call.

April 2021 - UK: Drones can enable surveys of difficult-to-reach rural and city centre sites, saving time and money, as well as reducing the potential health and safety risks associated with surveys. With fewer engineers visiting sites, and fewer visits needed thanks to more accurate data being collected on first attempt, Vodafone’s carbon footprint will also be reduced.

Vodafone and Ericsson are working together to trial the use of drones and Lidar-based 3D technology to speed up network planning and site upgrades.

The trial will use a drone equipped with a high-definition camera, alongside Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology, to capture accurate data that can be used by the network engineering team to perform site upgrades. Vodafone and Ericsson will capture data from 70 different sites that are due to be upgraded.

Feb 2021 - UK: In a UK first, drones are transporting key medical supplies, such as COVID-19 testing samples and kits, in the remote Argyll & Bute region of Scotland as part of a three-month trial.

Drones are using Vodafone’s 4G network to transport medical supplies between NHS hospitals and facilities in a remote part of western Scotland.

The drone flights can cover up to 40 miles (64km) at a time, with each drone capable of carrying up to 3kg of medical supplies, such as medicine, COVID-19 testing samples and kits, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

The flights, operated by drone specialists Skyports, are the first in the UK to receive approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to carry diagnostic specimens.

Both scheduled and on-demand flights will service Lorn & Islands Hospital in Oban; Mid-Argyll Community Hospital in Lochgilphead; Easdale Medical Practice in Clachan Seil; and the Mull & Iona Community Hospital in Craignure.

The drone flights should dramatically reduce not only the cost but the amount of time needed to deliver supplies to each destination, from as long as 36 hours to as little as 15 minutes – benefits that Argyll & Bute’s NHS authorities will assess during the three-month trial.

Sep 2019 - Ireland: Ireland became the first country to trial delivering diabetes medicine by drone.

It was 2017 and Professor Derek O’Keeffe, a Consultant Endocrinologist at University Hospital Galway, was growing increasingly worried about some of the diabetes patients he looked after who lived away from the mainland.

Hurricane Ophelia, the worst storm ever to hit Ireland, had buffeted the country with winds up to 120 kilometres (km) per hour and some of his diabetes patients from the Aran Islands were unable to make it into clinic due to flooding.

The Aran Islands sit in the Galway Bay. Popular with tourists, they are also home to 1,200 people and the doctor knew that one day he would be unable to get medicines to residents with chronic conditions like diabetes across stormy seas.

Later that winter the same problem occurred when Storm Emma brought with it heavy snowfall of 57centimetres.

As Professor of Medical Device Technology at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI) he already had a remit to create clinical innovations for patients with diabetes and decided to trial delivery to the islands using autonomous drones.

Through the NUI Professor O’Keefe created the #DiabetesDrone project to trial the world’s first ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) delivery of two diabetic drugs, insulin and glucagon to Inis Mór, the largest of the islands.

A big challenge came in the regulation. BVLOS drone flights are not yet legal in most countries because of the potential impact on aircraft.

Vodafone Ireland stepped in to ensure that autonomous drone would be tracked throughout the flight using its dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) mobile network and for additional safety would be able to stream a constant live first-person view camera feed from the aircraft.  

The Irish Aviation Authority was convinced of the value of the project and gave a special dispensation to allow this flight to take place in a Temporary Restricted Area for research purposes, meaning that the drone would operate between commercial flights and was in contact with air space regulators at all times. There was also a team of pilots from Survey Drones Ireland present to take control any stage of the flight, if needed.

The autonomous drone launched from Connemara Airport on 13 September 2019 on a pre-planned flight path using Q Ground Control software. This software allowed the connection of the primary cellular communications and backup satellite communications to be displayed, allowing the pilots on both sites to track the progress of the aircraft.

The total flight distance covered on the first leg was 21.7 km, which included entering the correct air traffic sequence at both airports during take-off and landing. The return leg was slightly shorter, covering a total distance of 21.6 km. Both flights were completed on a single set of batteries and totalled just 32 minutes of flight time.

Only a brief summary from the press releases was reproduced above, do check out the links for more details.

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