For the drone industry to reach its full social and economic potential, the government, regulators, and the industry need to work together. BT, a UK’s telecommunications and network provider, claims to be bringing together world-leading drone expertise, with its secure and resilient network connectivity, to establish the UK’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace through Project XCelerate. Backed by the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, the project consists of the following companies (apart from BT) who were selected by the UK Research and Innovation: Altitude Angel, Angoka, DronecloudDroneStream, HEROTECH8, SkyBound Rescuer, and Skyports.

Located just south of Reading, Berkshire, the new commercial drone corridor will demonstrate how using a commercial mobile network allows drones to operate safely in the same airspace as manned aviation. In summer 2021, Project XCelerate will conduct flight trials along the 8km-long corridor to overcome the challenge of enabling safe BVLOS flights, essential to accelerating the adoption of fully automated drones in unrestricted UK airspace. Also, the corridor will help to showcase how drones can provide value across various verticals, including healthcare through medical supply deliveries and emergency services to speed up response times whilst reducing costs, as well as critical infrastructure, to assess damage or maintenance requirements for critical national infrastructure.

One of the major challenges with BVLOS is ensuring consistent access to reliable connectivity to handle the continuous low latency traffic demand between an operator and a drone. Therefore, consistent bandwidth and low latency communications are paramount to accelerate the adoption of fully automated drones in unrestricted airspace. 

Since the existing terrestrial mobile network already has significant coverage with low latency, high throughput, and low cost, that’s where the existing 4G and 5G networks come in, and communication security is already inherent within its architecture at many levels from encryption on the radio link to higher-layer security mechanisms. By enabling the live streaming of images, video, or other data captured by sensors, these networks enable operators to review captured data in real-time and take appropriate actions faster – especially 5G networks where speed and latency improve significantly over 4G.

“With 5G you obviously have the higher bandwidth, but you also have lower latency. 4G has a latency rate of around 50 milliseconds. With 5G, you can expect a reduction to about one millisecond,” Oliver Spatscheck, a Distinguished Inventive Scientist at AT&T, told Commercial UAV News in an interview. “Additionally, we can support more devices with 5G, but what’s essential is how that support is specific to certain needs and functions.”

BT’s strengths in reliable, secure, high bandwidth, low-latency radio, and fixed connectivity through the already established 4G and 5G EE mobile network, the trusted provider behind the critical Emergency Services Network (ESN), will ensure commercial drones remain connected for greater situational awareness, accurate positioning and collision avoidance, ensuring they can be operated safely and responsibly across UK skies. Together with Altitude Angel GuardianUTM, BT will provide critical communications such as GPS location, remote identification, command and control, redundant geo-awareness, and live notifications (NOTAMs) sent directly to drones in-flight, making it easier to distinguish between known authorized operations and unknown potential threats.

Additionally, BT will take advantage of TEOCO’s connectivity data platform, AirborneRF, which is designed for BVLOS drone operations in cellular networks and provides valuable information about where drones can fly without losing wireless connectivity. TEOCO’s AirborneRF also delivers network information to ATM and UTM systems in real-time, allowing Altitude Angel GuardianUTM to identify alternative routes that can then be presented to the end operator.

With the growing use of drones in the UK and PwC’s prediction of 76,000 drones in use across UK skies by 2030, any advancement in BVLOS is critical not only for commercial drone operations, but also for the future of flying taxis, delivery drones, and smart cities, which will be essential as urban populations grow. Cellular networks are present everywhere around the world and Project XCelerate aims to use them to create a framework and widen the use of UTM systems that towns, cities, organizations, and networks can take advantage of to open portions of the sky.

“While a drone-connected future may still seem far away, there is an increasing number of communication service providers laying the groundwork today to make our skies as busy as our roads”, Thomas Neubauer, VP of Innovations at TEOCO, wrote.

Like Project XCelerate, AT&T 5G Innovation StudioNokia Drone NetworksGSMA’s Aerial Connectivity Joint ActivityEricsson, and more, are all working towards a mobile network framework for drones to connect to.

“Automated drone technology has the capacity to transform how we live our lives and bring about significant efficiencies,” Neubauer added. “Operators have a huge opportunity in front of them to support the future of drones and already have the supporting infrastructure required in place. However, their cellular networks alone won’t be enough to make the drone dream happen, they will need the right tools to meet drone connectivity requirements to ensure drone operators can deliver on the much-anticipated applications set to take the skies in the coming years.”

For more information about BT’s Project XCelerate, download GSMA, British Telecom, and TEOCO’s white paper for free.