Safety first: a glimpse into the future of cellular drones from MWC21 Barcelona

This year’s MWC Barcelona was an unusual one for obvious reasons, but it was heartening to see delegates turn out in force nonetheless for our series on realising the promise of cellular drones. Much of the sector’s initial growth will be driven by unmanned flights, so our largest session this year was on Industrial Applications for Mobile-Enabled Drones, with a supporting virtual networking session on Commercial and Strategic Opportunities for Mobile-Enabled Drones.

“We’re not just making drones go a bit further or faster – we’re redefining how humans and machines work together,” opened Philip Butterworth-Hayes, Director of Communications and Strategy at CIVATAglobal, “and doing it at astonishing speed. We face huge challenges, which we can only address with stakeholders like MNOs, who are a key piece of the jigsaw.” As Philip explained, there are three key elements to solve. The first is of course connectivity itself, i.e. making it as effective, reliable and economical as possible; followed by perfection of unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems, on which government support will rely; and realising the vast potential of drone-based data services, to support the business case for unmanned flight.

While trials continue in areas like asset inspection and commercial deliveries, there is growing recognition that medical use cases, and those in safety and rescue, will be the primary route to widespread public acceptance of drones. Toby Townrow, Co-Founder of Drone Evolution, predicted that with work on UTM, infrastructure and high-speed connectivity through 5G now developing at pace, “benefits to humankind are what will drive activity, rather than waiting for regulations to catch up – the technology will always move faster.” As we become accustomed to seeing drones as a key element in critical services, then, common reservations will be re-examined as people recognise what is to be gained.

This was the prevailing view across panels: “Especially popular is treating drones as a first responder, in situations where you don’t want to send humans,” said Elena Neira, Head of 5G Standards at MITRE Corporation. “From there we can move onto societal benefits such as making deliveries faster and greener.” This was echoed by Nicholas Zylberglajt, CEO of Unmanned Life, who suggested a fairly gradual rollout for commercial drones: “it will be step by step, demonstrating concrete improvements and positive impact in society.” According to Nicholas, focus on a platform and software approach will be essential to deliver more robust, safer and scalable technology – “and cooperation with telecom operators will be key to making this vision a reality.”

So with the pace of progress depending so much on public acceptance, what are the likely timescales for that most sensitive prospective use case – passenger transport over cities? “It’s easy to imagine the journey starting soon on passenger mobility, but really we’ll need to learn from successes in industry first, to improve the software and convince regulators it’s safe for transport of people,” noted John McKenna, CEO of “We’re still in the demonstrator phase and won’t move to autonomous flying in the next five years,” agreed Airbus’ Patrick Castagnino, who is convinced only of remote co-pilots for now, with a move to fully autonomous flight in the next eight to ten years. “The issue in between is how to fly safely with a wide connectivity path, with connectivity enabling certification control and mission control operations. 5G is mandatory for that, as is the help of MNOs.”

A crucial factor to the acceleration of progress here, then, is fostering effective communication and collaboration between operators and the drones and wider aviation ecosystem. “I strongly believe MNOs play an important role in the developing unmanned aircraft ecosystem,” explained Philippe Vallée, Executive Vice-President, Digital Identity and Security at Thales. “Besides their ubiquitous and reliable connectivity services, they offer unmatched identity management capabilities for check-in and check-out of drones and their pilots.” With capabilities like these on offer, Philippe went on to explain, the priority now is helping the mobile industry and aviation ecosystem understand each other – and, with that, to develop common words, assumptions, and methods of working together.

Hendrik Bödecker from Drone Industry Insights helped to quantify some of the issues discussed on the panels. As Hendrik pointed out the global non-military drones market will roughly double between 2020 and 2026, growing from $20.9bn to $41.3bn – a healthy CAGR of 9.4%, but with the total size still only reaching the annual revenues of a single large MNO. We remain therefore at the beginning, but with excellent opportunities for those positioned to help forge that early growth (the projections find services far and away the highest-value segment). Hendrik’s polling of his own network found fully 67% of respondents believed control of drones ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) to be mobile connectivity’s main contribution, followed by real-time data analysis at 22%. “With radio communications we are limited to flying drones in the pilot’s line-of-sight,” explained Marc Beltran, Operations Manager at the BCN Drone Center.  “But with mobile communications we could be sitting here in Barcelona piloting a drone on the other side of the world – this completely unleashes the potential of many drone verticals such as delivery and drone taxis.”

MNOs have a wide range of services to offer here beyond connectivity itself, including coverage information, crowd management, location verification, and dynamic no-fly zones. With much of the journey still ahead, then, there remains a good deal of work to develop partnerships between the mobile and aviation industries. As the GSMA’s Global Head of IoT, Identity and Big Data Richard Cockle explained, this work is being done through initiatives such as the Drone Interest Group (DIG), which convenes over 50 organisations from both industries, and the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity (ACJA) agreement between the GSMA and GUTMA to work together on challenges, opportunities and logistics relating to aerial connectivity. “We are making a new type of industry, so there is a chance to do something really different,” said Philip Butterworth-Hayes. “It means we can involve all stakeholders, from communities to industry pioneers, so everyone can participate.” And as Toby Townrow noted, events of this kind are a key part of that process.

View the video recording here.