5G could let drones fly further
Drone pilot Mohammad Azhafi at Vodafone’s Innovation Lab controls the DJI Matrice 210 RTK drone at the Vodafone 5G Mobility Lab.
Photo: Oliver Berg/DPA
There is a rule of thumb for drones: you can only fly them as far as you can see them. But why exactly? 5G cellular can expand the field of view somewhat.
by Von Wolf von Devitz, dpa 05.08.2022, 07:50
Aldenhoven. A finger forward, a gesture upwards and then a finger is tapped on the palm of the hand: It seems strange how Vodafone developer Mohamed Azzhafi stands outside in front of a test center in Aldenhoven near Aachen (NRW) and moves his hands back and forth . emotionally. Away from that, you can see the reason for the gesture in the air: a drone. The 29-year-old wears a “Hololens” – i.e. glasses with which the user can see a digital screen. The pilot controls the five-kilogram drone with fingers and a hololens, which recognizes movements as commands. He doesn’t have a controller.
Gesture control is intended to simplify drone operation, as the movements required are easier to learn and more intuitive than operating a controller. Thanks to the HoloLens, the digital world that Azzahfi sees in front of her has advantages. This allows him to locate the drone on the map in no time at all. Even if the drone disappears into the cloud, it knows where it is. Thanks to 5G, the pilot’s field of vision has been digitally expanded, so to speak.
The fact that this futuristic-looking project is making good progress so far is also due to a nearby mobile phone mast. It transmits signals using the 5G radio standard. “Real-time communication takes place between the drone and the pilot, which enables safe control even from a great distance,” says Azzahfi. This would not have been possible with the previous standard 4G and WiFi signals that many drones are connected to.
Strict rules for out-of-sight flights
So far, privately operated drones are only allowed to fly within line of sight. This means the pilot can see the missile from the ground. The benefits of 5G should now be a strong argument for changing the rules and expanding the limit. According to Vodafone, the pilot is always well informed thanks to the mobile phone standard. “An almost unlimited flight would be possible, but not allowed,” says developer Azhafi.
Flights outside the line of sight are already possible under certain conditions. But it requires a risk assessment and an operating permit, and the rules are strict. Which makes sense given the security issues.
A big step towards increased use of drones could come in 2023, based on EU regulations. Then drone airfields can be defined, where unmanned air traffic can also be more easily hidden from view. In such airspaces, the status of all road users is recorded and exchanged with each other. 5G can also be important for this. In a way, the mobile communications standard is the key to significantly expanding the possible uses of drones.
An uninterrupted connection must be guaranteed
Achim Friedl from the Association for Unmanned Aviation (UAV DACH) is on alert. “5G has great advantages, but there are still many questions to be answered for commercial use in drone flights.” At higher altitudes, the radio signal becomes weaker – the airspace is not sufficiently “illuminated” everywhere. He emphasizes: “An uninterrupted mobile phone connection must be guaranteed so that a pilot can always keep going and avoid a collision with another flying object, for example.” Official approval for commercial flight operations is only granted if this guarantee is proven for the intended flight area.
Vodafone’s competitors have also recognized 5G capability. According to Telefónica Deutschland, 5G-controlled drones can be used to implement new applications in the industrial sector and optimize processes for business customers. Mallick Rao, Chief Technology Officer, says: “Difficult-to-access outdoor facilities such as power poles, bridges, power plants or ports can be monitored even faster and more efficiently with 5G-controlled drones and our o2 5G network.” Is.”
So far, 5G has played a role in drone operations, especially in so-called campus networks. These are demarcated areas where a business or other organization is digitally secure and has very strong connections. In the port of Hamburg, drones operate in Telekom’s 5G campus network. And industrial companies use drones in their workshops for secondary tasks.
The purpose of traffic management is to avoid collisions
The example from Aldenhoven to Vodafone now shows that more is possible beyond the campus network. 5G drone flights can also help with floods or wildfires, with Vodafone touting the other benefits of broadcasting recordings during the flight. One catch is that not all corners of Germany have 5G reception. But the expansion is in full swing.
Dronik Managing Director Ralph Shepp is also thinking big about 5G. Among other things, the company provides a traffic control system that shows drone pilots the position of other missiles in real time and is intended to prevent collisions. The company, about half of which is owned by Telekom, uses the mobile network of the Deutsche Bahn Group – partly 4G, partly 5G.
Schepp points out that the 4G mobile communications standard is still sufficient for some applications, such as the digital positioning of drones. “But when it comes to real-time connections and the simultaneous transmission of large amounts of data, you need 5G.” He cites bridge inspections or control flights over gas pipelines as examples – thanks to 5G, drone recordings can be broadcast and evaluated during the flight. “Huge bandwidth is required, which is not a problem for 5G.”
Christian Müller from the European Helicopter Association called the 5G potential for drones “huge” – the radio standard has “the potential to have additional capabilities for all participants in the airspace”. However, he also has subtle concerns, pointing to “the impact of 5G waves on some equipment on civil aviation aircraft”. This is an issue above all in the USA, in Europe the frequency bands are quite far away. In the future, however, this could also become an issue here, “if the frequency band is expanded so that more data can be transmitted”.
© dpa-infocom, dpa:220805-99-281860/2 (by Wolf von Devitz, dpa)