When we talk about broadcast versus network, the focus has often been mostly around remote ID and their applications to this singular piece of the regulatory puzzle. But what about other pieces like ground and air risk mitigation, live data streaming BVLOS, and other systems that not only make flight safer but also opens up new use cases? If we broaden the aperture of the conversation and consider all of the possibilities of what network and broadcast can offer the drone industry during advanced operations, it becomes clearer that these other pieces of the puzzle can only be provided by networked solutions—that is, the ability to send and receive information. 

This is where mobile network operators, or MNOs, come into play. They can supply incredibly valuable information about the air and ground situation over a planned path, while also supplying specialized services that make drone operations valuable to industry.

“Broadcast remote ID has a range of advantages when it comes to simplicity in particular for UAV operations that are not particularly sophisticated,” explained Thomas Neubauer, Co-Founder of Dimetor and Vice President of Business Development and Innovations at TEOCO. “Under the current regulation, with BVLOS not being widely allowed, these sorts of “simple” operations are the vast majority. For advanced operations however, particularly when we talk about BVLOS, there is practically no alternative to Network Remote ID. EASA, in contrast to the FAA, has already seen that and defined in their latest decision in late February that Network Remote ID will be a mandatory service for U-Spaces, which are the European definition of airspaces that have to follow specific rules. This new regulation will already become effective in January 2023—a bit more than 1.5 years, which is pretty soon. Ultimately, in the US (and anywhere else actually) I expect Network Remote ID to be critical and important for any advanced UAV operation. Thus, it will come.”

The historical challenge with network technologies and aerial services is that MNOs and aviation have not had much to do with each other, which means there is a lot of groundwork to cover to get both industries up to speed on what the other needs and how they can benefit. This is why solutions like AirborneRF are developed to bring connectivity to the aviation ecosystem. 

To learn more about how AirborneRF is bridging that gap and opening up possibilities like ground risk mitigation, real-time data exchange, and more, Commercial UAV News spoke with Neubauer to get his take on why we need to work with MNOS, where we are with that conversation, where we should be, how we can get there and more. 

Danielle Gagne: What does AirborneRF specialize in?

Thomas Neubauer: AirborneRF builds a bridge between the mobile network operators (MNOs) and the drone ecosystem. It enables automatic data exchange to answer the questions around connectivity, but also about ground risk along a flight route. This brings value to the UTM ecosystem, so that they have real-time access to supplementary data from the MNOs, and it enables the MNOs to participate in the ecosystem of unmanned aviation and allows MNOs to deliver services beyond connectivity.

For BVLOS flight planning and in-flight and post-flight processes for a UTM or USS/USSP, data from a mobile network operator will be very useful to answer questions such as “where do I have sufficient connectivity for a command & control (C2) link?”, “do I have sufficient connectivity to satisfy the in-flight conformance monitoring requirements?” and so on.

Can you talk about some of the projects you are involved with and what problems they are looking to sort out?

The problems we are solving are quite similar in all the various global projects in which we are involved. While it is very clear to everybody that wind and weather is an important criteria on where you can fly a drone safely BVLOS, connectivity has not been seen as being as important.

However, connectivity is absolutely key. For example, the FAA requires “a pilot in command at all times.” So, for a BVLOS flight that means you must have good and reliable connectivity to the UAV, hence you have to include that data in mission planning.

Why is it important to have connectivity data included in mission planning and how can MNOs help with that planning?

What happens if the flight planning sends a UAV to an area where it is not able to communicate with the UAV traffic management system or authorities? A drone not communicating is considered a “non-cooperative” drone, a rogue drone. Connectivity is super important from a safety perspective for BVLOS. This is where data from the MNOs is critical.

Similar aspects apply to ground risk. SORA processes today are using mostly manual processes and static ground risk data, like population density based on households, etc. The reality, however, is that the ground risk, that is where people are at a given point in time, is VERY dynamic. It follows some regularity and pattern, like commuting traffic, but it is absolutely not static.

MNOs have by far the best understanding of that data in their networks because practically everybody has a phone with a SIM card. However, this data is typically highly classified and confidential.

With AirborneRF we developed a solution that allows the MNOs to provide both connectivity and ground risk data to the unmanned aviation ecosystem players in a safe, confidential, and live manner. We work with customers all over the world. Some we can already publicly name, such as Telstra in Australia, Swisscom, KPN in the Netherlands, LMT in Latvia. We are also working closely with two of the tier 1 carriers in the USA, and there will be a number of additional announcements in the next couple of months.

Why is it important for the drone industry to collaborate with telecoms, especially to unlock advanced operations?

Connectivity becomes a must have for BVLOS operations. Cellular is best suited for that—by far—and for advanced operations it is not about “putting a SIM card into a UAV.” It is about data, automated information exchange, and correlation with the network data, these are services that only an MNO can provide.

For example, for any advanced mission that requires a flight plan approval, there will be a requirement to demonstrate where you have sufficient connectivity along a flight route and areas where you don’t expect it. The only practical way to do that is to collaborate with telecoms. This is because telecom networks are dynamic, they change, they are maintained, sometimes the networks are heavily loaded, sometimes they are not. It requires solid understanding of the operational network, configuration details and live settings. To get that information along with ground risk information, collaborating with telecoms will be highly beneficial.

To enable an automatic exchange of that data, we provide AirborneRF to the MNOs.

With networked connectivity being a necessity for advanced operations, where are the current challenges and gaps in enabling this?

Looking at the “connectivity” for UAVs in particular, the gap is primarily driven by the fact that aviation and mobile network operators did not have any touchpoints in the past. Cellular communication did not have any play in the management of manned aviation. “Please turn off your phone when you enter the plane” is probably one of the few overlapping areas. 

With unmanned aviation, and the need to have a pilot-in-command for BVLOS operations, connectivity is becoming a must have. And, cellular is by far the best option available for the foreseeable future. They provide communication in licensed spectrum, 25 years of very successful experience with authentication and authorization of services that are based on service level agreements (SLAs), wide scale availability at commercially feasible terms, and so on.

However, most MNOs don’t “speak aviation,” and most aviation people don’t “speak cellular.” To bridge that gap, GSMA (representing more than 750 MNOs worldwide) and GUTMA (the Global UTM Association) have joined forced to form ACJA, the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity. The objective is to overcome this gap and provide a common understanding and platform that automates the operational processes.

First results of that ACJA work will be Aerial Profiles that define essential features for LTE aerial services, and a NetworkCoverage Service Definition, which defines and harmonizes the interface between MNOs and UTM systems on a global level. That work is being continued and enhanced, and I can only invite anybody interested to join to reach out to me and I will help you get there. 

You talk about language and understanding between these industries as being a barrier. What do Telecoms need to understand in order to really support the drone industry and vice versa, what does the drone industry and those in the aviation industry need to understand?

As there has been no historical interaction, the mutual understanding starts with the same language. Take for example “operator,” in telecom speech that means a “mobile network operator,” whereas in drone language it means a “UAV operator.” The gaps in the understanding are wider than one would think.

However, to better understand each other, the best way is to work together in actual test implementations, setting up demo cases that exchange data and prepare for cellular connected drones. This is what we see happening globally today already.

People in aviation need to understand that connectivity is a necessity for advanced commercial BVLOS operations, in one way or the other. This includes both safety-critical connectivity as well as service-critical connectivity. However, putting a SIM card into a UAV will just not work (it is only working now, because today we essentially run test cases). Cellular operators have to authorize and authenticate aerial services for these customers, as they have specific requirements and implications. Thus, working with the MNOs early on will be critical.

In addition, aviation professionals should know that existing LTE networks provide connectivity that is sufficient for many application cases. 5G will be another enhancement for the time when many drones will be airborne simultaneously. They should also be aware that MNOs can provide a lot more value than just connectivity—as we’ve discussed.

And finally, redundancy will be provided by means of combining complementary communication means, including multiple cellular (terrestrial) and satellite systems.

On the other side, mobile network operators should understand that cellular connected drones will become a reality. The current dynamics show that they will come earlier than later. Hence, preparation is key if you don’t want to end up with “connectivity only.” The entire UAV industry is a monetization opportunity for cellular that goes way beyond connectivity to include data, edge cloud processing, value added services, OTT opportunities, and more. Most importantly, there will be dedicated aerial services with specific SLAs attached, and it will be important to provide value for each and every flight (i.e., transaction based rather than flat data plans).

To drive business development in the UAV industry, the first step is to understand what the existing infrastructure – without any modification – is able to support. From there it is to enhance capabilities and services, and also to prepare (and protect) the network for the time when the regulatory clearance arrives. Regulatory clearance for BVLOS will be a like an on/off switch for a new industry category, driven by the massive value – e.g. replacing services provided by helicopters. The MNOs who are prepared will be the winners.

For the industry as a whole, it is important to understand that this is an ecosystem game, rather than for individual players. Unmanned aviation and communication service providers are two huge global, highly standardized and regulated industries. The intersection of these two leading to cellular connected drones flying advanced BVLOS operations is the foundation for innovations that have the potential to revolutionize many industry verticals.

Where are we right now with bridging that gap between the needs of the industry and the current state of cellular networks?

The most important thing—the gap—has been identified and initiatives have been started to combine the two worlds, cellular and aviation, in a harmonized and global manner. ACJA by GSMA and GUTMA is one of the examples. The release of the NetworkCoverage Service Definition is a milestone that defines on a global level how MNO data can be exchanged with the aviation ecosystem—a first realization to bridge the gap.

A range of projects in the US and Europe are dealing with it also. Projects like “GOF 2.0 Integrated Urban Airspace Validation,” which is spanning essentially over 7 different countries in Europe, have a specific focus on the integration of cellular connectivity for the management of UAVs in an integrated airspace. We are super pleased to be part of that, as AirborneRF is providing the interface between the MNOs and the drone ecosystem for full end-to-end implementations in GOF 2.0.

So right now, the gap is identified, solutions to harmonize solutions have been presented, and AirborneRF is providing the leading platform for those who actually want to implement that bridge today. It is operational already with some customers preparing for what is expected to come. 

As we fill those gaps and work increasingly with MNOs, what is the business model that you imagine for enabling networked solutions in the drone industry? 

In the absence of regulatory clearance, there are a range of approaches toward a universally applicable business model. Right now we see a number of test implementations, but also first commercial engagements with end-to-end solutions. An increasing number of MNOs are actively engaging in the drone industry. Some even form joint ventures with the ANSPs to provide full platforms for this emerging business. Others acquire drone service and technology companies, and/or partner with UAV service suppliers.

Then there is a range of MNOs that work with their existing enterprise customers on advanced solutions, and do joint developments to understand the value of connected drones. And, of course there are MNOs waiting to see what happens. 

One thing we see however is a strong growth in the interest by MNOs toward connected drones. For most of them it is becoming clear: BVLOS drones will happen, and the objective is to provide services well above and beyond connectivity.

MNOs don’t want to repeat their mistake again of becoming a bit-pipe for connectivity for the upcoming unmanned aviation industry, leaving the highly profitable OTT and value added services business to others! Particularly with 5G, they see their network as an enabling platform, a critical infrastructure element for scaling unmanned aviation. BVLOS drones enable service offerings that the MNOs are exploring.

We help them with AirborneRF, where we provide the platform that connects MNOs with the aviation ecosystem, bridges the gap, and enables value added services beyond connectivity.

Taking everything that we have discussed today into consideration, what do you envision the future will look like for the drone industry?

I expect the drone industry to behave a bit like the IoT industry.

Essentially you can consider a drone an IoT solution that delivers information (sensor data, pictures, videos) or packages of any kind, or—further down the road—people. Connectivity is a must have requirement. There will be safety-critical connectivity (like remote ID, C2, and so on) and service-critical connectivity (like video feeds for public safety and inspections, time critical sensor data, and more generally broadband requirements for inflight-entertainment for UAM, etc.).

However, connectivity for drones will not be enough for MNOs. In the same way as connectivity-only is not a viable business for MNOs in the IoT space. It is about the end-to-end solution to enterprise customers.

Due to the safety critical nature of services, I also think that MNOs will play a more important role in the unmanned aviation industry than in the terrestrial autonomous vehicles space. The regulatory clearance for BVLOS operations of drones will mean a revolutionary step, not an evolutionary one.