Mobile and Aviation Industries Meet to Plan the Future of Unmanned Flight

What does the future have in store for aviation – and what will the role of the mobile industry be?  In short, flight will soon become far less reliant on pilots, and far more reliant on cellular connectivity.  Over the years ahead we’ll see much wider civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), usually referred to as ‘drones’, and as these develop they’ll rely increasingly on mobile networks.

The range of potential uses of drones are difficult to overstate:  from search and rescue to emergency fire response, and from remote surveying to unmanned delivery, and far more besides. To make full use of these capabilities, however, drones need the range and reliability of cellular connectivity –  WiFi can only take unmanned flight so far. Without the ability to move beyond the drone operator’s line of sight, drones are invisibly tethered to a relatively small area, and their practical application is curbed.

With that in mind, delegates from the mobile and aviation industries, and across the wider drone ecosystem, met in June 2019 at the Connected Skies conference in Portland, Oregon, to discuss how to get the most out of unmanned flight.  Connected Skies was the first event bringing together the mobile and aviation industries to discuss the future of flight – and with more than 200 professionals in attendance, representing 122 different organisations across 25 different countries, It’s clear this was a landmark moment in the history of collaboration between these two giants of the tech world.

Over two days delegates met current and future players in this space, and enjoyed deep-dive sessions on key topics such as remote identification of UAVs; coverage and robustness of aerial LTE connectivity; redundancy solutions in different environments; deployment road mapping; and, of course, the role of 5G.  Wireless connectivity will also be essential to delivery of key components of unmanned traffic management such as registration, identification, flight planning and approval, and more besides.   Unmanned traffic management was a hot topic throughout the conference. Adrian Solomon at Thales’ Digital Aviation initiative suggested that data trustworthiness is the main challenge, telling delegates that “Securely connecting the drone to the network is the first step towards real-time services to the operator, and real-time fleet and drone management – thus, the trustworthiness of the generated data becomes the cornerstone of the system.”

Among the most essential ingredients to success will be carefully designed regulation, which delegates recognised as a matter of some urgency.  As Saulo da Silva, Chief Global Interoperable Systems Section at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), said in his opening remarks, “I have 193 countries that need answers and they need them now. Aviation needs a single sky.” The starting point here is the ICAO Global Aviation Trust Framework, conceived to ensure secure digital communications for global aviation. This calls for interoperability, requiring global coordination and cooperation; identification of common needs to unite all aviation ecosystem stakeholders; development of common solutions that build on existing foundations; and agreement on a common destination, i.e. one interoperable sky.

There’s no doubt that regulation of any airborne craft like drones will be owned by the aviation authorities, but as mobile operators play an increasingly central role in unmanned flight, their input will be crucial to its effective regulation. That means mobile operators working in this area today will be those helping to shape and inform what some have called the impending ‘internet of the skies’. For any transformative shift on this scale to be implemented successfully, the regulatory environment needs to be adapted in anticipation – and the kind of complex systems needed to manage large flows of pilotless craft must be developed in tandem between those using them, those connecting them, and those regulating their use.

On capacity, the demands for which will be considerable from unmanned flight, some in the aviation industry expressed understandable concerns over whether existing aviation systems are able to support entry of this diverse group of new users, in particular given the increasing digitisation of aviation operations.  Aviation industry participants were clear that some use of existing commercial mobile networks will be needed. Smarter use of cellular infrastructure will also be necessary, with proper integration of air, ground and Cloud systems.

We caught up with Ralph Schepp, VP, Program & Project Management, Group Technology, Deutsche Telekom, after the event. He’s as well placed as anyone to see where the priorities and challenges in this space lie, and how to anticipate and overcome them so to the tremendous value available here can be unlocked. “The aviation industry generally recognises that cellular networks are the only available system for today’s UAV needs,” Ralph explained, “but they want us to work solidly on network transparency, coverage, security and reliability, and to avoid overselling 5G. That we can and will deliver.”

Drones are an obvious candidate for cellular connectivity, as mobile connectivity is needed for them to achieve their considerable potential. As the relationship between the mobile and aviation industries grow, operators will have a number of both commercial opportunities available to them, and the ability to influence the future regulatory landscape. We hope and expect more and more to join in driving development of unmanned flight forward, as these events become a fixture in the industry calendar.

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