TelcoFuturism - Part 1
This is the first blog post in a series on “TelcoFuturism” – which focuses on the intersection points between the telecom industry and other areas of advanced technology, such as drones, AI, AR/VR and robotics – and the opportunities and possible challenges that could emerge. Disruptive Analysis looks at these adjacent technologies through the lens of what’s really happening in networking, and the tough practicalities and complexities telcos face, rather than accepting the general hype and rose-tinted views common among some forecasters.
The last ten years have seen the emergence of a significant and growing consumer and business market for drones – or more correctly UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles. While military drones and remote-controlled planes have existed for decades, it was only in 2010 that the first mass-market UAV emerged – the Parrot AR drone. It was followed in 2013 by the Phantom from DJI, now the world’s leader in the market.
In the last six years, a broad range of drones have been released, for both consumer enthusiasts, and various professional uses such as journalism, construction surveys and agricultural monitoring. Governments have been playing catch-up, looking to regulate drone use, especially on safety/security grounds, while recognising the potential contributions they make for business and wider society.
The telecom industry has also been a keen observer – and sometimes participant – in the drone marketplace. Disruptive Analysis believes that this will continue to develop, and could eventually become an important factor with the evolution of 5G and other networks.
A critical thing to understand is that the intersections between telecoms and drones are bidirectional:
- Drones can assist in the operation, planning and control of telecom networks
- Telecom networks can assist in the operation and control of drones, or provide drone-related services.
Drones in telecoms
There is a growing range of applications for UAVs within the telecoms industry itself:
- Coverage mapping: Drones can be used in addition to, or instead of, normal cellular drive-tests or crowdsourced measurements of mobile signal strength and coverage. As well as the potential ability to give lower costs, UAVs allow mapping to be performed in three dimensions, or in locations where it is hard to test manually (such as deep-rural locations for agricultural IoT use-cases).
- Maintenance inspections: cell-towers, telegraph poles and other sites need regular inspections for safety and asset performance management reasons. Drones are able to do this rapidly, record video and send back other telemetry data, and reduce the safety risks (and costs) associated with human climbers.
- Temporary / aerial towers: A number of mobile operators, including EE in the UK and AT&T in the US, have investigated using hovering drones as temporary cell-sites. This can be used for emergency sites to give coverage for first-responders, or could be used as temporary systems while damaged antennas are repaired (e.g. after extreme weather). These drones can be “tethered” with a power cable to a van for long-duration operation, or can be free-flying.
- Spectrum monitoring: Telecom and radio regulators have various spectrum monitoring and enforcement tasks – for example, checking on MNOs’ coverage claims, or detecting and identifying sources of interference. This does not just apply to mobile-oriented spectrum, but also bands used for broadcast, satellite communications, governments or other uses.
- Delivery: Drone delivery to remote locations is normally thought about for parcels, pharmaceuticals or maybe groceries – but potentially, telecoms equipment could also be delivered this way. For instance, fixed-wireless antennas for rural households, or spare parts for in-field maintenance engineers could be delivered in minutes or hours, rather than days.
Source: Disruptive Analysis
Telecoms in drones
The other direction of drone/telecom convergence is more about telcos’ provision of drone-related services to end users.
At the most basic level, we may find that UAVs become equipped with 4G/5G radios for both control and real-time transmission of telemetry/video. Today, the majority of drones are controlled with Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum, plus their own self-navigation and inertial guidance. However, in most countries it is not permissible to fly drones beyond “line of sight” from the controller – and in any case, Wi-Fi usually has limited range (perhaps a few hundred metres).
In future, we may find that cellular-based connectivity becomes more common, both because of greater range (and beyond-line-of-sight usage) and as a means of regulatory control. Governments may insist on cellular connections for certain drones for security reasons – this would give them identity/ownership details by linking the SIM to a registration database, and also maybe allow some form of air traffic control to force a drone to a different flightpath by remote control, or to land on demand. Given disruptions to airports and even use by terrorists, this type of scrutiny and desire for control seems quite plausible, especially for larger UAVs.
However, this type of connectivity may not be easy – most cellular networks don’t have coverage up to 300-500m altitudes, and roaming, data/video streaming and control signals will need clever engineering in the backhaul, transport and core domains as well as radio.
Other possible opportunities for telco-provided drone-based services include:
- Edge-computing for video processing (especially) for cellular-connected drones
- Full drone-as-a-service business models for particular verticals, perhaps linked to MNOs’ broader IoT or industry-solution plays (e.g. for agriculture, construction or utilities)
- Drone-based broadcast, for sports and new events. For uninterrupted live video streaming at broadcast quality, very sophisticated connectivity solutions are required. Given that many telcos are buying or building content businesses, this gives some potential differentiators against other firms.
- Solutions for public safety agencies, such as temporary managed 5G networks for emergency sites.
- Potential smartphone data plans and apps/services oriented towards consumer drones using the handset as a tether (e.g. video archiving, live broadcasts, customised roaming plans etc.).
There will be growing points of intersection between telecoms/mobile networks, and consumer and especially industrial-grade drones in future. While this is unlikely to be a mass-market play in terms of unit numbers, various B2B, B2C and B2B2C solutions could be built around UAVs as a component part.
In particular, as drones become more integrated with government regulatory regimes for aviation, they face requirements for cellular connections – perhaps eventually the long-promised 5G ultra-reliable low-latency type.
For their own use, telcos often have large field forces and assets scattered over wide areas, with varying levels of accessibility. Drones can help with planning, maintenance and other operational tasks. Regulators, vendors and other stakeholders can also exploit their use.
Clearly there are complexities and challenges here – from liability insurance, to 3D network coverage, to reliance on a new category of suppliers. They bring challenges for mobility, network-slicing and security – but overall, this is an interesting area to follow as the sector evolves in coming years.
To learn more about ECI’s 5G Solutions, click here.