Safety considerations will determine the future of smart mobility

Smart mobility is now very much a reality on the mass market: cars are already far more than vehicles, connecting various aspects of a driver’s life from work to entertainment, while delivering the data needed for road safety and traffic management analytics. Meanwhile the role of uncrewed aircraft has been transformed from a hobbyist’s pursuit to agriculture, public safety, emergency response and far beyond.

In terms of forward momentum, the focus now for the mobile industry – and its partners both in connected driving and uncrewed flight, who convened at MWC Barcelona’s Smart Mobility Summit this year – is very much on safety. As AT&T’s Cameron Coursey pointed out, pedestrian deaths rose in the USA by an alarming 12.5% between 2020 and 2021 – road safety in the world’s largest market then, as elsewhere, remains top of the agenda in smart mobility.

Yet challenges remain in bringing the mobile and automotive industries together on technical alignment: “the two industries are working to different lifecycles,” Mr Coursey explained, as the lifetimes of vehicles and cellular networks differ so greatly. It’s barriers like these that have prevented the much-anticipated Level 5 autonomy from becoming a reality on connected roads – as Volvo’s Head of Regulatory Affairs Serafino Abate noted, it simply hasn’t been possible to get the regulatory frameworks in place to move forward at the desired pace, making L5’s arrival now likely between 2027-29.

MNO infrastructure is shaping the future of connected vehicles

Despite these complex challenges however, the mobile industry is making considerable progress in building the infrastructure required to support smart mobility on land and in the air, helping both automotive and drone sectors to grow and innovate. As Mr Coursey pointed out, 5G will be “the key to it all, as there’s now a lot of direct to cellular solutions in the making that don’t require any changes to devices at all.” And as CTO at Wind River Systems Paul Miller noted, the advent of 5G edge compute makes far greater network horsepower available to localised applications – opening up high-margin “killer 5G use cases” on the road, such as those relying on demanding visualisation, helping to ensure the commercial viability of MNO investments.

Meanwhile drones are now rapidly evolving past the need for operators to be physically present with BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) capability. BVLOS enables far broader commercial possibilities for drone applications; but, as deployments widen, the focus on risk mitigation must only intensify – as with autonomous road vehicles, public trust will ultimately determine the extent of the industry’s growth. Mobile networks are the natural foundation on which to build these new highways in the sky, as on the road, through enhanced connectivity, real-time data exchange, and ground-and-air risk services.

The reliance of drones on MNO infrastructure and tailored services is therefore growing quickly. This growing role for MNOs brings with it immense commercial opportunities: in the UK alone for instance, drones will contribute £45bn to national GDP by 2030, while creating 650,000 jobs, and reducing carbon emissions by 2.4m tons – and are already saving hundreds of lives per year through rescue. Such figures increasingly confirm what is to be gained once widespread trust can be earned – how then can MNOs help the industry to thrive, while securing their own role?

Engagement with ecosystem will secure MNOs’ role and drive innovation

Much of the answer lies in identifying organisations in their markets which are demonstrably focused on safety, are applying themselves pragmatically to those challenges, and are operationally ready for the future. By working with the most promising and scrupulous regional actors now, MNOs can build the collaborative relationships they will need by the end of this decade – and learn directly from innovators on what they can do to help. This applies to both uncrewed aerial flight and those seeking a role in smart road mobility.

“Last year we launched the UK’s first commercial drone SIM,” explained Dave Pankhurst, Director of Drones at BT Group. This SIM is ruggedised for harsh atmospheric conditions, comes with dedicated QoS, and offers a wide range of capabilities allowing drone operators to demonstrate reliability to regulators. “We help them with coverage data at altitude and population density risk data, so they can prove that they’re testing and acting safely.”

Dedicated offerings beyond connectivity then, based on engagement with those who need them, are essential – but so too is support for the growing ecosystem. “We also invested in an organisation called Altitude Angel,” Mr Pankhurst went on. “This is around deconfliction services in airspace as we scale up, and more drones are operating in the same areas and heights – a lot of that comes down to providing distributed infrastructure for shared use.”

So where could such initiatives take us in future? “Almost all critical infrastructure will soon be run by robotics,” explained John McKenna, CEO of “$100 trillion worth of assets globally – the market to fulfil this is enormous.” This is where BVLOS drones come in. Removing the human need to maintain remote or dangerous environments creates a need for growing fleets of autonomous inspection drones which rely on centralised command-and-control systems. The future are preparing for is something like BVLOS 2.0 – a ‘system of systems’ which ties together the various complex platforms, data streams and safety considerations involved.

This translates into a platform capable of pulling historical data from every millisecond of flight which can be assessed using advanced analytics and simulation tools. “It’s a single layer of software that spans from onboarding supervisors and drones, to enabling autonomy,” Mr McKenna explained, “enabling long-term system improvements and ensuring regulators have streams of data not only for proofs and permissions, but also trust, as they’re deeply involved in the loop.”

Interoperability is vital for scale – for which collaboration is key
Interoperability is of course essential to scalability here. As the ecosystem grows, so too does heterogeneity between stakeholders – making open APIs crucial to reliable collaboration. This is where MNOs like Telefónica are turning their attention, with projects like Open Gateway – helping to enable dynamic density maps for aerospace connectivity, and use network data rather than GPS for positioning. “We’ve created a software stack shared by almost all telcos,” explained Head of UAS & Drone APIs Pedro De Alarcón. “70% of mobile traffic worldwide can now turn through our drone APIs.” Cooperation on APIs is made possible through initiatives like Camara, where Telefonica and others work on standardising APIs – any actor can join, not just MNOs, in an example of vital ecosystem collaboration.

It’s efforts like these that make shared aspiration translate into collective action. An equivalent for work in connected roads is the Software Republic, which VP Mobile Connectivity at Thales explained is designed to help MNOs, automakers and startups “achieve the mobility revolution together through sharing of complementary knowledge and capabilities, for faster innovation and shorter time-to-market.” It was created to address mobility ecosystem challenges around sustainability and cybersecurity, and in just two years eight projects are now in mass production, most recently an electric vehicle charging station that is intelligently bidirectional between car and home, and an innovative solution for vehicular biometric access management.

The challenges to growth in connected road and air travel differ of course in many particulars, but the unifying themes are clear – safety is paramount for pedestrians, drivers, and those below drone flight paths. And, especially in the case of connected road vehicles, protections must be convincing when it comes to user data if widespread acceptance is to be achieved. MNOs must act now to build the relationships they need to shape these industries in such a way that ensures not only the mobile industry’s place in them, but their very future – and we heard much at this year’s Smart Mobility Summit to assure us that this work is well on the way.