Vodafone to trial air traffic control system for drones

Vodafone to trial air traffic control system for drones

Telecoms giant Vodafone has announced trials of an air traffic control system for drones. The company is using its 4G mobile network and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help prevent accidents, and avoid illegal incursions. 

Figuring out how to integrate drones into commercial and civilian airspace is a technical challenge that’s being tackled on both sides of the Atlantic. In December, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a report outlining industry stakeholders’ views on how to track and identify flying robots. Similar discussions are underway in Europe.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is currently developing a framework to regulate the operation of drones as part of its U-Space initiative.

Read more: MIT’s NanoMap helps drones to navigate safely at high speed

Vodafone’s radio positioning system

Vodafone claims that it has developed “the world’s first Radio Positioning System (RPS) for drones”. The system relies on a 4G modem and SIM embedded within each drone. The result allows authorities to track and identify each drone in real time.

Vodafone says that the 4G-enabled system allows for beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) control by the operator, which greatly reduces the risk of accidental incursions when operators lose sight of their drones.

Geofencing technology can also be applied to force drones to land automatically, or return to the operator if they stray too close to airports, prisons, or major events.

However, both BLOS flight and geofencing are already provided by drone-industry leader, DJI.

Read more: US Army grounds DJI drones over cyber vulnerabilities

Intervention and innovation

Most professional-level drones have a working range in excess of three miles, although regulations on both sides of the Atlantic forbid flights of that range without a waiver.

In theory, Vodafone’s 4G network could greatly extend that range. A recent trial in Spain saw the company fly a 1.3 metre wingspan, 2kg X-UAV along a 32km course near Seville. The drone transmitted a live HD video feed and flight data, including speed, RPS location, and GPS coordinates.

Notably, Vodafone’s system enables emergency remote intervention. This would give authorities the power to override a drone operator’s control should the aircraft be deemed a risk.

Vodafone Group CTO Johan Wibergh, said: “This groundbreaking innovation by Vodafone will help to ensure the skies stay safe as drones become ubiquitous.”

Deputy director general of the European Commission, Matthew Baldwin, said: “The Commission supports all trials aimed at realising our U-space vision for safe commercial drone operations in the EU. There is a growing network of demonstrations and projects across the EU. We look forward to hearing the results of Vodafone’s work.”

Further trials of the technology are scheduled in Spain and Germany throughout 2018. Vodafone intends the system to be commercially available from 2019.

Internet of Business says

Any concerted attempt to make our skies safer by integrating drones with traditional air traffic is welcome. Vodafone’s technology is bold, but innovation and implementation are two very different things.

Chinese drone giant DJI has a massive hold over the hardware market for both commercial and ‘enthusiast’ drones, so any serious attempt at an unmanned aircraft tracking system will need to have DJI onboard, particularly if it requires modifications to the hardware (as Vodafone’s Sim-enabled solution does). On top of that, DJI already has its own technology for tracking and identifying its devices: Aeroscope.

Vodafone’s plan to allow emergency intervention mid-flight may trouble some end users, even if our airspace regulators may feel safer with such a hands-on solution. However, until countries such as the US and the UK make greater and more coordinated efforts to integrate unmanned air traffic with traditional flights, at both strategic and operational level, the market will be forced to develop its own piecemeal solutions.

In the UK, for example, the Aerospace Technology Institute is responsible for doling out government cash to the aerospace sector, and yet there is currently no panel within the organisation dedicated to autonomous systems. That is an extraordinary state of affairs for a country that has identified robotics and autonomous systems as being critical to its future economic prosperity.