The ecosystem must adapt to meet the promise of cellular drones: reflections from the Chair of the GSMA Drone Interest Group

The mobile industry has connected billions of devices on the ground and is more than capable of connecting large numbers of devices in the sky as well. Cellular networks are optimally placed to enable drone-based solutions from traffic control to law enforcement, and existing terrestrial infrastructure can deliver rapid growth of the drone ecosystem without requiring development of wholly new technologies or significant network investments. The potential benefits of drones to the mobile industry are considerable – but it has a stringent responsibility to support approaches that ensure safety, security, privacy, equity of access, interoperability, and environmental protection.

Deployment of cellular drones comes with complex challenges, which must be properly considered and planned for. How, for instance, we can connect them efficiently and consistently while minimising the impact on terrestrial devices is a question that requires re-evaluation of many assumptions, models, and techniques used to date in cellular systems. The operation and management of large and growing fleets of drones, flying safely overpopulated areas, requires highly reliable technology in place to monitor, authenticate and control them – with connectivity support from backbone communication networks for command-and-control, as well as for payload communications.

Airspace management where there are hundreds of drones flying largely autonomously is a task without ready-made solutions. Clearly, drones can only be accepted where they do not impact on the safety of conventional aviation, or of people and property on the ground – rules and regulations in this area, especially regarding drones flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), are evolving rapidly and vary significantly between countries. As the technologies available improve quickly, laws are moving in a less restrictive direction – and, as that consensus builds, efforts to harmonise those laws are thankfully gaining momentum.

Integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the aviation regulatory framework is by no means easy, but there is increasing recognition of the need for globally common frameworks to support the development and deployment of unmanned traffic management systems. The cellular and aviation industries must overcome historical disconnects and interact seamlessly – and that means improving their understanding of each other with time. The mobile industry should be proactive in flagging any missing technical or service requirements that may need development, while also showing some degree of adaptation to what the aviation industry needs – there must be network readiness to support this new layer of demand and the ecosystem which will grow from it.

We at the GSMA Drone Interest Group (DIG) recognise that large numbers of potential use cases require continuous tracking and investigation to identify business opportunities and aim to assist MNOs in devising new business models as preferred alternatives to traditional processes, as well as developing best practices to prepare them to make the most of the new service opportunities.  MNOs need to build service packages that go beyond connectivity, and add operational value using their unique assets and expertise. At that point it will be possible for MNOs to develop far-reaching strategies for the market in drones and avoid simply becoming providers of a utility.

The connectivity at the mobile industry’s disposal is nonetheless formidable and will only become more so in the years ahead. Standalone 5G will be the foundation for applications which require ultra-low latency, high data throughput and excellent propagation characteristics – all of which the highly-reliable and responsive networks of 5G are uniquely placed to support via network slicing, with guaranteed minimum thresholds. This ensures that in the event of a congested network, a high-priority connection to a drone will not be adversely affected. When drones are communicating with the Cloud for guidance, telemetry, and other flight-related functions, an ultra-low latency, secure network is essential.

At DIG our focus is primarily on the future of standards and regulations, business models and ecosystem engagement. We invite GSMA members and associate organisations with an interest in these areas to join, learn and share their own expertise to support the progress of cellular drone sector. We hope to ensure that there are plenty of SMEs in DIG, who share a core knowledge base and common understanding of unmanned aviation, helping share key particulars as they engage and educate their peers, building trust and boosting participation. We will also help consolidate the global ecosystem with engagement activities with academia and other research institutions researching innovation in drones, and by fostering proofs-of-concept and trials. If you are interested in discussing our activities with us, or to consider applying for membership, we very much look forward to hearing from you.

Anouar Saadi Msc. is the new Chair of the GSMA Drone Interest Group (DIG), which exists to explore opportunities for cellular connectivity in commercial drone deployments, share industry knowledge, and position the industry to realise the promise of unmanned aviation.

The GSMA Drone Interest Group is open to all GSMA members.

Please contact us at to see how you can take part.