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Virgin Media O2 powers 5G emergency services drone

Virgin Media O2 is parading its latest 5G use case, a tethered drone designed to help the emergency services.

The telco this week shared details of a trial it carried out with Swiss public safety drone specialist Fotokite to provide a video feed from a drone to assist first responders on the ground. Essentially, Fotokite has a tethered drone system – connected to a ground station via a reinforced, ultra-thin cable, that is – that can be flown as much as 45 metres into the air to give a bird’s eye view of a situation to the emergency services. Data is carried to those on the ground, at the scene and in other locations, via 5G.

The companies have a lot to say about the drone itself. Their announcement is all about the drone’s various different iterations; its ability to operate in harsh conditions, day or night; how easy it is to set up, launch and fly; and, of course, how useful it is to first responders dealing with emergency situations. And naturally that last point in particular is what this is all about.

But from a telecoms point of view, this is about telcos using their 5G networks for applications outside their normal comfort zone of consumer connectivity and entertainment.

“This is an important piece of technology and a further example of how 5G technologies can provide societal benefits. We are relentlessly pursuing new 5G-enabled innovations that will make real differences to people’s lives, from smart cities to connected vehicles and our work with utilities companies to the NHS,” said Rob Searle, Head of 5G at Virgin Media O2.

“This partnership with Fotokite is another example of this, and could transform how emergency services operate and react to life-threatening situations,” Searle added.

Mobile operators love to talk up the altruistic benefits of their 5G infrastructure – and there are some – but fundamentally they need generate a return on their 5G investments, and that means exploring as many new use cases as possible.

Using 5G networks to power drones for the emergency services is never going to be a huge money-spinner for telecoms operators, but it is part of the bigger picture of exploring the potential of the faster speeds and lower latency the technology offers. If this application works, and the trial suggests it does, then it will have broader appeal and open up new commercial possibilities.

For now though, the human angle of using 5G to help first responders and save lives serves as an ideal showcase for the technology.

“Safety-critical data sharing in public safety applications can make real impact when information is distributed quickly and reliably,” Fotokite chief executive Chris McCall. “Incident commanders and decision makers have new capabilities when it comes to 5G-enabled technologies like the Fotokite Sigma, and we are excited to work with O2 in a joint mission to help those public safety teams save lives and stay safe.”

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