A 3D map of UAV network performance will prepare the industry for take-off

Just as cars depend on traffic lights, roads, and signage, unmanned aerial flight requires its own supporting infrastructure. An obvious equivalent is the establishment of flight paths – and, crucially, the cellular networks that support them. These networks are crucial, but before they can be used reliably and at scale commercially, it’s important to understand what they can actually support. Several key metrics come to mind – such as latency, uplink, and general reliability – all of which need to be understood according to geography and altitude. This data is essential for the wider drone industry in its quest to develop, test, and ultimately deploy applications such as aerial deliveries, aerial inspections, and unmanned passenger flight.

Despite being a crucial factor in the commercialisation of drones, for many in the ecosystem this information remains largely inaccessible. This was the motivation behind Ericsson’s recent 5G Drone Testing – a network performance monitoring and engineering study designed to assess how 5G NSA/SA and LTE networks can support various UAV applications.

The project consists of two phases. Our initial focus has been a meticulous evaluation of the drones’ performance on existing network infrastructure – this involved capturing network performance KPIs specific to UAVs and drones at various altitudes. Achieving this relied on ongoing collaborative efforts involving network operators T-Mobile and Verizon, with the support of  GSMA Foundry – the innovation arm of the GSMA Our initial phase involved recording network performance data for over 65 drone flights, accumulating an impressive 16 hours of total flying time, and spanning two separate geographical areas in two states.

The results are intended to demonstrate the scalability and applicability of networks  for common commercial scenarios, and a key focus of the project was on how this data can best be visualised. The Ericsson Device Analytics (EDA) platform is a multifaceted solution comprising a front-end client on the drone, and a sophisticated back-end visualisation UI. The platform’s capabilities extend to generating 2D and 3D coverage maps, providing real-time assessments of coverage at different altitudes in a geography of the user’s choosing. The ability to create real-time 3D coverage maps represents a significant leap forward in the drone deployment landscape – already, we can see how this feature is instrumental in optimising drone routes and ensuring consistent network performance.

One distinctive feature of the EDA platform is its openness, allowing various stakeholders to draw on its capabilities. In theory, MNOs, drone operators, enterprises, and regulators can all use the platform, helping to foster collaboration and accelerate various initiatives. This inclusivity positions the EDA platform as a versatile tool for the entire drone ecosystem.

A pivotal aspect of  the EDA capabilities revolves around ground-risk assessment, addressing safety concerns and operational efficiency in commercial drone operations. By assessing ground risk, the EDA platform facilitates routing drones over less densely populated areas, minimising potential hazards. EDA’s ground-risk assessment capabilities enable safer and more efficient commercial drone operations. This not only enhances safety but also contributes to lower insurance premiums, making drone operations more economically viable.

Our vision for EDA is to develop a tool that serves the interests of the whole ecosystem. And we’re genuinely excited about the prospect of incorporating new functionalities to meet the dynamic needs of the industry and the public more broadly. Building upon the insights of the project’s first phase, the second is dedicated to making necessary changes and adaptations to the mobile infrastructure, aiming to push us that step further to commercial BVLOS drone deployments.

EDA was made possible by the collaborative spirit of this ecosystem – and the results provide an advantage not just for one company, but for the many. Our hope is that EDA will serve the wider industry in assessing the viability of commercial deployments and maintaining the high-quality networks that uncrewed air vehicles depend on. As we prepare for phase two, we’ll continue to push the boundaries of what’s technically possible, but our commitment to enabling safe and efficient drone operations remains unwavering. The future of commercial drone networks looks promising, and along with our partners, we’re delighted to be leading the way into an exciting new era.