Regulators must recognise the role of mobile connectivity for commercial drones to flourish

The global commercial drone market has huge potential for growth, estimated to be worth $43 billion by 2024. Key to this valuation are numerous applications that will depend heavily on mobile connectivity. Sectors such as logistics, security and infrastructure inspection are on the verge of being transformed by the deployment of cellular UAVs. The last few years have seen steadily increasing technological developments and industry cooperation, and civic authorities are now increasingly engaging with this flourishing industry.

Both Europe and the USA shown commitment to drone regulation to provide clarity and a clear way forward on drone usage. An important part of the regulation is focusing on a digital remote identification – something akin to a vehicle registration plate. This was, in part, a response to the rapid growth of drones now operating in both regions, and with little means to identify them. The new regulations form a basis for rule compliance and accountability, improving safety and security.

On the 30th of December Europe introduced a new EU Regulation 2019/947, which together with the EU Regulations 2019/945 form the framework for safe drone operation in the European Skies. It takes a risk-based approach and sets out three categories of drone operation with dedicated CE marking for the open category. Such regulation also covers the remote identification, requiring for the open category to broadcast the information by means of local connectivity (e.g. Bluetooth or Wi-Fi); but allowing the use of network type connectivity (e.g. cellular) for the other categories. From late February 2021 the new U-Space Regulation (which will come effective from 2023) mandates a Network Remote Identification.

In December last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) showed its commitment to market regulation by ruling that, from 2022, most domestic drones will have to broadcast their location digitally, via a Remote ID.

These stipulations were largely welcomed by commercial drone producers, albeit with an awareness that they will need to remain engaged with regulators to ensure that rules maximise not only safety, but commercial viability as well. To do this, regulatory organisations will need to take into account, and make best use of, all relevant available technologies. The FAA’s ruling mandates that Remote ID must be broadcast via local connectivity – Wi-Fi or Bluetooth – thus catering to the consumer market, mainly composed of hobbyists, and short-range applications. Regulators will however need to consider other forms of connectivity in order to enable widespread commercial deployment of drones, where long-range cellular connectivity is more or less essential.

In Europe, the FAA’s equivalent the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has recognised this distinction by including cellular connectivity in its Remote ID regulation, and we hope to see such an inclusion from the FAA soon. As the FAA’s own Executive Director Jay Merkle notes, “Remote identification is already an inherent capability in mobile connectivity. Cellular networks use a number of methods to track and identify mobile users. By leveraging SIM card technology and identification protocols, unmanned aircraft systems may also leverage this capability.”

A collaborative approach to regulation

Alongside regulations such as Remote ID, advances in drone technology are making it possible to manufacture smarter and safer drones. Newer drones are increasingly improving their AI and beyond-line-of-sight capabilities, and can be designed to fly safely at night, improving the likelihood of regulatory approval for use above populated areas. Industry efforts to make drones safer as a matter of course are a sure sign that the drones industry is naturally aligning to meet prospective requirements set by local and central authorities.

The regulation of one newer drone, Skydio 2, is an example of how all three parties have worked together to create tight regulatory standards without hampering commercial imperatives. Skydio has recently been approved by the FAA permission to fly beyond line of sight, thus allowing the North Carolina Department of Transportation to use it to inspect 13,500 bridges across the Tar Heel state. Changes in the regulatory landscape such as these support increasing commercial deployment of drones, and public safety at the same time.

It is important that regulators are aware of the advantages that long range connectivity can provide to support commercial growth and public interest. As the drone market evolves, cellular networks will cater for the greatest range of applications whilst offering stable and secure connectivity at long ranges. Furthermore, increasingly sophisticated drone capabilities will place a premium on data speeds – something of growing relevance as we tread further into the 5G era.

Local connectivity, through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, will continue to have their place and cater for a range of everyday activities. But regulators should carefully distinguish between the optimum application of each form of connectivity. In the world of consumer drones, these technologies are often well-suited. For commercial applications however, the way forward is undoubtedly cellular. Regulators must continue their engagement with the drone community, in particular MNOs, who provide a key to the success of the drone industry and the wider Internet of Things.