5G-Powered Drones: New Services and Revenue Opportunities for Mobile Network Operators

After heavy spending in 5G frequencies and equipment, mobile operators need to offer new lines of services to tap into fresh revenue opportunities and capture new market segments.

One area with enormous potential is the commercial unmanned aerial vehicles—or drone-- market. 5G is not only the future of connectivity, it also enables wide-scale drone deployment for mission-critical drone use cases. Indeed, 5G drones have emerged as one of the hottest technologies of 2021. With wide-area, high-speed, secure wireless network coverage from major wireless service providers available nearly everywhere a drone can go, networks like 4G LTE and 5G support safe, reliable autonomous drone operation beyond the visual line of sight.

When flying, drones typically use less reliable point-to-point links, which could lose signal at any time during flight. When operating on a 5G network, a drone benefits from the ultra-high reliability and low-latency connectivity. This means a drone can receive and act on commands sent from the ground control system or pilot quickly. 5G helps to reduce the time spent between sending, receiving, and acting upon commands, therefore reducing the margin of error that could happen during flight.

According to the PwC report Telecom Operators in the Age of Drones, “Telecom operators are uniquely positioned to become pivotal players in the rapidly developing commercial drone market.” The variety of commercial applications is already significant. With their capabilities in connectivity, cloud, big data and analytics, telecom operators are prime candidates to offer drone-powered services for organizations.

One example is unmanned traffic management (UTM) solutions, which operators are well-positioned for based on their access to mobile networks. Providing secure, scalable, and high-quality connectivity to the drone market will enable this new range of services. Analyst firm Markets and Markets forecast the UTM market will, reaching revenues of $1.96 billion world-wide in 2025.

Helping to Rebuild the Post-COVID-19 World

With the onset of the COVID-19 virus in 2020, drones were used with astonishing frequency to offer contactless delivery of important goods to people under shelter-in-place regulations. Location technology supported this service. 

Drones are being used to help prepare the post-pandemic world, from cleaning and infection detection to delivering vaccines and tests. This was the spur behind a trial in Angus, Scotland, where Coronavirus tests were sent by drone from shore-to-ship. Project MediDrone was conducted by a consortium including Neuron Innovations, “drone-in-a-box” provider Herotech8 and Flock. Seven ship-to-shore deliveries of medical supplies took place, in weather that included hailstones, wind and rain.

The MediDrone trial is not the only recent example of drones being used to help people live and work safely as nations prepare for a post-pandemic world.

  • In the U.S., drones from a company called Draganfly were being used to monitor people for symptoms and social distancing compliance
  • They can also be used to spray disinfectant and rid surfaces in workplaces of Coronavirus.
  • Drone Delivery Canada has been focusing on resupplying cut-off communities in the most remote parts of the country.
  • Lucid Drone Technologies has a drone that includes an expanded battery for longer flight times. It can clean 200,000 square feet per hour, at least 20 times faster than a human could clean the same area.
  • Zipline is providing drones that deliver vaccines to remote areas, including across Ghana.

Pedro Pacheco, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner, told Cities Today that city leaders should prepare for an increase in delivery drones, accelerated by their use during the COVID-19 crisis. By 2026, more than a million drones globally could be carrying out retail deliveries, up from 20,000 today, according to Gartner. Pacheco urged cities to begin considering regulation, privacy, security, and landing space allocation.

Regulatory efforts around drone operation are underway in both the United States and Europe. In the United States, the FAA is working to integrate drones into its National Airspace System (NAS), with the remote identification (Remote ID) of drones. Remote ID is the ability of a drone in flight to provide identification and location information that can be received by other parties. This helps the FAA, law enforcement, and other federal agencies find the control station when a drone appears to be flying in an unsafe manner or where it is not allowed to fly. Similarly, the adoption in Europe of the U-Space Regulation in March 2021 is seen as a key enabler for delivery drones, while paving the way towards urban air mobility and the widespread use of drones. 

The HERE Platform: Enabling Digital Remote ID and Accurate Airspace Mapping for Drones

Drones need location intelligence to operate efficiently and safely; rich and accurate data sources are vital for safe drone transportation. Real-time geolocation data is critical for digital Remote ID and other regulatory initiatives to require location information for drone operations. Further, the growing popularity of drones has highlighted the challenge of managing traffic in low-altitude airspace. This is especially important as commercial drone use increases. Soon, it may not only be our roads that are congested. 

Many are familiar with 3D representations of the road network; however, similar maps don’t yet exist for the lower airspace. Unmanned aerial vehicles must be able to locate themselves while considering multiple constraints. Just as for any other aircraft, there are no-fly zones which drones are not allowed to penetrate. In contrast to human-piloted aircraft, unmanned flights require precise information – exact position, height, shape – of objects on the ground, such as buildings, bridges, trees, streetlamps, or billboards. 

One of the ways to prevent air collisions and gain better control is through location-fueled solutions like geofencing. With HERE Geofencing, drone operators can partition a section of airspace in a decentralized way using blockchain technology, in addition to defining other areas by a centralized organization. For example, certain geofenced air spaces would be designated for emergencies only or “no-fly zones" like airports. In residential areas, geofencing can limit the times of day drones are permitted to fly due to noise or safety concerns.

In Conclusion

The market potential for 5G drones presents a tremendous potential for mobile network operators to target new sources of growth and revenue. 

Learn how HERE Technologies’ highly accurate, real-time location intelligence can help to enable the efficient and safe operation of unmanned aircraft such as drones and extend critical opportunities to mobile network operators. 

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.