Major telecommunication companies, such as Verizon and T-Mobile, are investing heavily in drone technology. Some of these firms have been purchasing drone manufacturing companies and are working with government agencies, including NASA, to get their drone initiatives off the ground.
Why Drones?New airframe designs, satellite navigation systems and advanced power sources have all converged to make drones very useful tools for many industries. This article covers some of the surprising uses for drones and explains why telcos may have the most to gain from new drone technology.
PseudosatellitesDrones have progressed to the point where they can serve as permanent airborne communication networks, functioning like space satellites but at far less cost. Companies like Direct TV can bounce signals off the belly of a drone for a lot less money than by using satellites.
Flying above the clouds at 65,000 feet, drones can communicate with ground stations over huge geographic areas. Solar powered drones can remain aloft indefinitely; there is no cost for fuel and their simple electric motors require little or no downtime for maintenance.
Closer to home, drones flying at altitudes of 400 to 500 feet are within range of personal computers and cell phones. At this height a drone can route voice, video and data over hundreds of square miles, potentially replacing dozens of cell towers. However, don’t write off cell towers just yet. There may be a new, more crucial role for cell towers as explained later in this article.
The Wind Beneath My ThingsDrones will also be vital for supporting the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), also known as Machine-to-Machine communications. IoT applications will require the monitoring of billions of individual sensors and the ability to stream sensor data to processing locations around the country.
Drones can be outfitted with different types of sensors and flown to any location where they are needed; they can monitor the operation of pipelines, bridges, rail facilities, power plants and more.
When drone sensors detect a problem, such as a chemical spill, the aircraft can zoom in for a closer look. The drone’s cameras can provide visual confirmation of any abnormalities that the sensors report. A big advantage that drones have over satellites is that their sensing abilities are not obscured by cloud cover.
The Southern Co., a Georgia utility, is planning to use drones for routine inspections and also to assess weather damage to its 27,000 miles of transmission lines.
FLYING HIGH WITH FIBER
Fiber optic cabling has begun to replace copper wiring in conventional aircraft. Fiber is lighter, immune to electromagnetic interference (EMI) and it doesn’t pose a risk when installed adjacent to fuel tanks or sensitive electronics.
The same advantages will be realized when fiber optic technology is applied to drones. Fiber will also be required to provide high bandwidth communications to radio towers that broadcast to the aircraft.
Improving Employee SafetyIn 2013, there were 13 fatalities related to cell tower maintenance. Using drones for aerial inspections could put fewer employees at risk.
Fluke Networks, a major test equipment company, has a suite of drone applications for visual inspection of antenna systems, spectrum analysis, signal strength monitoring and more. Their suite includes Wireless Work Advisor, Drone Edition, and AirMagnet Spectrum ES Platform. The company doesn’t manufacture drones, but provides the sensing apparatus that can be carried aloft by any drone that has sufficient payload capacity.
Lofty AmbitionsDrone technology is expected to create many new and profitable markets. As a result, companies in major industries are beginning to invest heavily in drone technology. Here’s what some of the big players have been up to:
IntelChip maker Intel has invested millions in a number of drone manufacturing companies, including PrecisionHawk, Airware and Yuneec International Co., a Shanghai drone company.
VerizonWith thousands of new civilian and commercial drones poised to enter the airspace, federal agencies are looking for ways to keep track of them all.
To that end, Verizon is working with NASA to develop a communications and monitoring system for drones that will utilize the company’s huge network of cell towers. The system is now in development at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
NokiaNokia has partnered with the carrier company, Du, to use drones to test its network at Dubai International Stadium. The drones carry smart phone based equipment to test and analyze network components prior to large events, as well as to ensure network optimization during the events. The drones will also do line-of-sight testing between towers, which is considered faster and more efficient than walk tests.
T-MobileT-Mobile has teamed up with Aerialtronics, a drone manufacturer. T-Mobile is planning to use drones to conduct thousands of antenna inspections, including those at the FC Utrecht Stadium in the Netherlands.
AmazonAt first, Amazon’s “delivery drone” idea was ridiculed. As people learned more about the capabilities of today’s drones, the idea didn’t seem so crazy after all. Now Google, Walmart and other retailers are developing drone delivery systems of their own.
Remaining HurdlesCurrent drone technology is capable of doing all of the things outlined in this article. However, there are still some regulatory issues to iron out before drones can be used for some commercial purposes.
For example, current U.S. regulations require that drones remain within sight of the operator. That would prevent drones from being used for such things as package delivery, long range pipeline inspections and so forth. However, FAA regulations continue to evolve and most companies that are investing in drones feel these constraints will be lifted eventually.
Connecting the DotsThe U.S. government has been surprisingly supportive in assisting companies in developing drones for commercial use. This begs the question: “Why?”
One reason for government support might be to assist U.S. companies in developing whatever tools they need to remain competitive in theglobal marketplace. As this article points out, drones are wonderfully cost-efficient in accomplishing a wide range of tasks.
However, another possible motive comes to mind that isn’t being talked about, at least not yet. Drones could help to harden the nation’s communications network. Unlike terrestrial systems, a network of communication drones would be stationed high in the sky, beyond easy reach of terrorists. If one or more drones were to be brought down, others could be flown in immediately to replace them. Drones can also make our country less vulnerable to solar storms that have the power to damage or destroy communication satellites.
WaveLengths predicts that public opinion about drones will eventually come full circle. An enlightened public will begin to view drones as “guardian angels” rather than weapons of war.
THE NAME GAME
Many drone proponents hate the word “drone.” Alternative names have been suggested, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). However, most of the suggested names are relatively long and cumbersome to say.
If you have a catchy alternate name for “drone” let us know! The reader who submits the best name will receive a 3-D printed model of “Catching a Ride,” which is based on the WaveLengths cartoon on page 12. This kinetic motion sculpture is sure to generate smiles as it hovers over your desk. Email your name suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.