5G and the future of drones

Last updated on

June 17, 2020


5G technology is a huge talking point – not just amongst drone manufacturers, but across a whole spectrum of industries. Indeed, many tech companies are now claiming that 5G is the future of drone technology. But is it really everything it’s hyped up to be? To try and answer that question, we’ve looked at some of the potential applications for 5G technology in the drone world, to examine whether 5G really is going to revolutionise the industry.

In this Blog you will learn;

  • What is 5G
  • The Evolution Of 5G
  • Can Drones Use Mobile Connectivity
  • How Can Drones Can Benefit From 5G
  • 5G Drone Applications
  • The Future Of 5G And Drones

If you’re interested into incorporating drones into your operations you can speak to one our experts here.

OK, so the first question has to be – what exactly is 5G?

Put simply, 5G is the 5th generation of mobile networks. Its predecessors, from 1G through to 4G, represent the evolution of network communications. The earliest iterations were focused mainly on uplink connections – sending messages and transmitting voice calls. As technology evolved, uplink and downlink connections became possible. Drone technology was able to make use of this, and drone manufacturers were able to produce innovative new drones that could fulfil a number of functions using 4G mobile data. This allowed them both to upload and download data. Amongst many interesting uses, drones have been used in building surveys, construction, and for search and rescue operations.

The evolution of 5G

1G: Analogue voice transmission
2G: The introduction of digital voice transmission
3G: Mobile data transmission
4G: Mobile broadband

5G is heralded as offering much higher speeds than the previous iterations, and it is also recognised as being very reliable. The almost negligible latency means that mobile users can expect a significantly enhanced user experience. Downloads that would previously take several minutes may be completed in a matter of seconds using 5G.

But can drones actually use mobile connectivity?

We’ve already seen that mobile networks are very well suited to supporting low-altitude drone communication. 4G networks can easily integrate with traffic management systems to make drone flying safer and more secure.

However, although some drones have been equipped with the technology to make use of 4G mobile data, it is still the case that a lot of drones are only controlled by radio remote control systems. These systems tend to have a rather limited range of just under 5 km. However, for as long as a drone has mobile network coverage, those which are able to utilise 4G connections can pick up signals over unlimited distances.

How can drones benefit from using a 5G connection?

The ultra-low latency of 5G means that there is huge potential for drones to be able to engage in data collection and transmission at unprecedented speeds. For any drones used to perform analytical functions, 5G will bring them far closer to being able to undertake near real-time analysis. However, the drones carrying out this analysis are unlikely to be the same as current commercial drones. It’s likely that technology will evolve to mean that the relatively small drones we are mostly familiar with will no longer have sufficient capacity. It seems likely that larger drones, with much longer flying power, will become increasingly prevalent.

Although there are lots of ways in which drones can make use of 5G to better perform their intended functions, it’s also possible that drones will be utilised as a means by which to build 5G networks. The idea of multiple drones flying autonomously means that they could help spread 5G signals with minimal gaps in coverage.

Drones as a tool for building a 5G network

A research team based at the University of Surrey has done some impressive work in this area. The DARE project (Distributed Autonomous and Resilient Emergency Management System) involves a series of moveable, battery-powered nodes which utilise 5G to communicate with drones. The aim is to deploy these in disaster zones, to assist the teams working to provide relief efforts. As the drones are in the air, they are able to deliver wireless internet to disaster relief teams on the ground.

This may prove a vital lifeline for medics, military and other aid providers working in these difficult conditions. It is common for mobile networks to be impacted, if not completely disrupted when a natural disaster occurs. This might come as a result of the physical disruption of the network – for example, through fires or earthquakes. It may also simply be the effect of a huge number of people accessing the network at the same time. This congestion can make it difficult for aid providers to be able to use existing infrastructure for mobile communications.

Early trials at the University of Glasgow showed a huge amount of potential. Five network nodes were placed 200m apart from each other. They were able to deliver a continuous 5G signal via the researchers’ specially adapted drone. The research team have indicated that they hope that in a practical deployment, the drone would actually be able to land on top of a high building. This would remove the need to have the drone continuously flying – simply meaning that the drone could simply be flown back to the ground once the network was no longer needed.

In alternative trials, engineers also looked at how drones could also be used to amplify 5G signals. IBM has already utilised drones to survey signal strength. This was then mapped into augmented reality to help decide where future antenna were placed, to help optimise signal delivery.

Other disaster recovery applications for drones using 5G

As the example above demonstrates, drones may prove to be an important vehicle in the provision of a reliable 5G network for disaster relief workers operating in challenging environments. Beyond this, they may also be able to facilitate the almost real-time sharing of data, which may have applications in a number of disciplines. Geological surveys may be able to report back to centralised locations with up to date measurements. For natural disasters such as earthquakes, such instant measurements can be critical in predicting any secondary tremors. Being able to process this data quickly and efficiently means that response times may be reduced, minimising the potential death toll from any further earthquakes that may hit the region.

Access to 5G drones may also allow those making assessments of structural damage to do so very efficiently by speeding up the rate at which this data can be transferred.

DJI M200 Inspection Drone

5G advancements in drone video technology

5G could also advance live drone video capability in leaps and bounds. Their enhanced ability to transmit data may increase the potential for their use in broadcast television, video surveillance and video mapping. Any industry which requires aerial video to be fed back in real-time can benefit hugely from 5G networks – meaning that 5G has implementations in everything from construction to traffic flow analysis. We may see drones go from being an occasional tool used by the video to capture an interesting shot, to being a commonplace feature in broadcasting.

Drones in safer cities

In fact, there are many ways in which 5G drones are likely to tie in closely to another up and coming area; smarter cities. The ability to design drone systems that can fly over roads and conduct real-time analysis of traffic flow can help feed into traffic and congestion management.

In some parts of the world, it is likely that 5G drones may also be used to help make smarter cities, safer cities. The real-time analysis functionality can be used to analyse pedestrian traffic. Indeed, in areas such as China, we have already seen drones being used to identify individuals breaking lockdown rules by analysing pedestrian movement. With the fast-developing functionality of live facial recognition becoming ever more advanced, there are some interesting, if slightly scary, applications that 5G drones could be used for by the State – especially in countries with differing views on privacy rights.

Delivery drones

In 2020 the retail industry has changed for good. As COVID-19 swept around the globe, retailers in many sectors closed the doors of their physical premises in March. Many have looked to online sales as a way to maintain their revenue streams. Although lockdown restrictions are easing, it seems likely that shops will still look for ways to assist in social distancing. Online sales are widely predicted to remain higher than pre-lockdown levels and companies are starting to consider how to optimise these for maximum rates of return.

That is where drones come in. Drones are already being utilised in some places for home deliveries. They offer a contact-free way for consumers to receive goods, something that will be looked on favourably by many, particularly if we see future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it seems highly likely that this is an area that will see significant growth. As this delivery system expands, many drones will need to be in the air at once. 5G will help to support this and will increase the ability for these services to be offered even in more remote areas.

As well as using drones to deliver items, 5G drones which employ high-quality computer vision are likely to prove to be useful workhorses in warehouses. These drones would have the ability to identify individual products without the need for a barcode system. This potentially reduces the need for items to be individually categorised and coded manually, meaning that this application of drone technology has the potential to significantly increase operational efficiency in factories and warehouses.

Wacky races

Most drone enthusiasts will have come across the rather odd sport of drone racing. Something of a cross between an obstacle course and mid-air Robot Wars, it definitely makes an interesting spectacle. However, at the moment it is generally only considered to be a niche sport, albeit one that makes great video content.

There are two reasons why we think drone racing might become a far more commercial enterprise in the future. Firstly, 5G is likely to mean that racing drones would have far more potential to produce high-quality video that could be streamed in real-time. 4K video quality and 360-degree video production could make it an even more engaging spectator sport.

Additionally, in a post-lockdown world, there are likely to be significant social distancing restrictions still in place for some time to come. This is likely to pave the way for an increase in more virtual sports, and drone racing offers a very viable and engaging model that companies may seek to adopt to replace lost revenue from more traditional sports.

This all sounds great, but why isn’t it happening already? When can we expect to actually see 5G drones in action?

There is still a significant way to go before we actually see the widespread use of 5G drones. Some of the earliest applications are likely to be those using drones as a vector for 5G transmissions in challenging environments – such as the disaster relief efforts discussed in the earlier examples. One of the most notable examples in the United States has been Verizon. The company chose to advertise their 5G Ultra network by showing its application for search and rescue drones.

Over time though, it does indeed seem likely that this is going to be a significant growth area for the drone industry. At the moment, one of the critical things missing that would enable the industry to make this next leap forwards is reliable widespread coverage. For drones to make effective use of a 5G network, the coverage must be comprehensive. When it is, we can expect significant advances in building surveys, agriculture, surveillance, and all manner of other industries that utilise commercial drones.

Of course, based on the political interest in establishing strong 5G networks in the UK and US, we can expect to see a more widespread roll-out of 5G over the next three years. China and Japan are also highly likely to invest in 5G infrastructure – at least in their large centres of population – so this is likely to see a significant drive towards the production of ever more sophisticated drones to make full use of the 5G network. So it looks set to be an interesting few years, and we can expect significant steps forward in the commercial use of drones as we look towards 2025.

If this article has piqued your interest in drones and you like to learn more you can speak to one of one our experts here.

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