Mobile communications: 5G could let drones fly further – digitally

Flights beyond the visual field are already possible under certain conditions. But this requires a risk assessment and a license to operate, and the regulations are strict. Which is understandable given the security issues.

A big step towards increasing the use of drones could be made in 2023 based on EU regulations. Drone airspaces could then be designated where unmanned air traffic would also be easier to take place out of line of sight. In such airspaces, the positions of all road users will be recorded and exchanged with each other. 5G could also be important for this. To some extent, the mobile radio standard should be the key to significantly expanding the potential uses of drones.

Seamless connection must be guaranteed

Achim Friedl from the Unmanned Aviation Association (UAV DACH) is cautious. “5G has great advantages, but there are still some questions that need to be answered for commercial use in drone flights.” The radio signal becomes weaker at higher altitudes – the airspace is not sufficiently “lit” everywhere. He emphasizes: “A seamless mobile connection must be guaranteed so that a pilot can always steer and, for example, avoid a collision with another flying object.” Official approvals for commercial operations will only be granted once this guarantee is demonstrated for the intended flight area.

Vodafone’s competitors have also recognized the potential of 5G. According to Telefónica Deutschland, drones controlled by 5G can be used to implement new applications in the industrial sector and optimize processes for business customers. “Outdoor facilities that are difficult to access, such as electricity pylons, bridges, power stations or ports, can be monitored even more quickly and efficiently using 5G-controlled drones and our o2 5G network,” says Chief Technology Officer Mallik Rao.

So far, 5G has played a role in drone operations, especially in so-called campus networks. These are demarcated areas where a company or other organization is digitally protected and has very strong connections. In the port of Hamburg, drones are moving on Telekom’s 5G campus network. And industrial companies are using drones in their factory facilities for support functions.

Traffic management aims to avoid collisions

Vodafone’s example from Aldenhoven now shows that more is possible beyond campus networks. 5G drone flights could also help in the event of floods or bushfires, with Vodafone touting further benefits of broadcasting in-flight recordings. One catch is that not all corners of Germany have 5G reception. But the expansion is in full swing.

Droniq CEO Ralph Schepp also thinks highly of 5G. Among other things, the company offers a traffic management system that shows drone pilots the positions of other missiles in real time and is meant to prevent collisions. The company, nearly half owned by Telekom, uses the Bonn group’s mobile network – part 4G, part 5G.

Schepp explains that the 4G mobile communications standard is still sufficient for some applications, such as the digital tracking of drones. “But when it comes to real-time connections and the simultaneous transmission of larger amounts of data, you need 5G.” As an example, he cites bridge inspections or inspection flights on natural gas pipelines – thanks to 5G, footage from drones could be transmitted and evaluated in flight. “They require huge bandwidths, which is not a problem for 5G.”

Christian Müller from the European Helicopter Association calls the potential of 5G for drones “enormous” – the radio standard has “the potential to enable all participants in the airspace to have additional capabilities”. However, it also has subtle concerns and points to “the influence of 5G waves on certain instruments in civil aviation aircraft”. This is an issue above all in the US, in Europe the frequency bands are quite far apart. In the future, however, this could become an issue here as well, “if the frequency bands are expanded so that more data can be transmitted.”

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