Ericsson and UScellular make tentative progress with 5G drone test

Chicago-based UScellular has successfully tested 5G connectivity between its live network and a drone.

Working with kit maker Ericsson, the telco flew a drone 2 miles between two of its base stations. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – as they are also known – was equipped with a 5G smartphone and some RF measurement equipment, which helped UScellular record data including signal strength and quality, throughput, and latency. Flights took place at various altitudes up to 400 feet, and took measurements using both low and high-band spectrum.

The aim of the test was to compare the network performance in the air versus the ground and therefore understand what is required to successfully connect drones to 5G networks in future. It will also contribute to use case development.

“Testing our wireless connections at altitude can set the stage for future connectivity of drones in the air, providing command and control capability along with enabling real-time image and data sharing to be easier, faster and safer,” said Narothum Saxena, VP of technology strategy and architecture at UScellular, in a statement. “We believe that our network can help drones fly in an optimal way if they have connectivity, and with Ericsson’s support, we will continue to drive innovation that can help enhance our customers’ wireless experience.”

One of the primary use cases espoused by UScellular is remote inspection. Mobile operators can use drones to check on cell towers, farmers can check on their silos, and utility workers can have a look at electricity poles, for instance. While these sorts of tasks can be completed today with normal drones, 5G connectivity will support real-time video streaming at longer distances, which could enable such tasks to be carried out beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). This makes site inspections much more efficient and cost-effective, say Ericsson and UScellular.

According to an Arthur D. Little report published towards the end of last year, the drone services market could be worth $50 billion in the next five years, while the global drone hardware market is expected to grow in value to $30 billion during the next decade.

While the tests carried out by UScellular and Ericsson are a step in the right direction that will help MNOs optimise their networks to support connected drones, it’s only a very small step towards the overall commercialisation of connected drone services.

Drone-testing corridors and unmanned traffic management (UTM) services – which can automatically coordinate and monitor the flight of hundreds if not thousands of UAVs simultaneously – are the key components that will really kick BVLOS drone services into life. Fortunately, testing corridors are being rolled out in various markets, including the US and the UK.

The latter is in the process of establishing the world’s largest. Known as Project Skyway, the 265-kilometre-long corridor will connect airspace above several cities, including Cambridge, Oxford, Reading, Rugby and Southampton. In addition, UK incumbent BT, as part of the Project Xcelerate consortium, plans to begin testing BVLOS drone services this year in an 8 kilometre corridor near Reading. Meanwhile, regulator Ofcom is currently consulting on proposals to launch a new spectrum licensing scheme for commercial drone operators.


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