Drones and 4G: a match made for the heavens

As the demand for drones goes up, the need for extension of their functionalities and usability rises as well. Industries need drones to cover larger distances, while receiving real-time data from them. They also require a framework to manage operations with multiple drones.

The biggest hindrance to enabling these features is communication. Long-distance communication devices are power-guzzling, heavy and expensive, and often require regulatory permissions to be used in drones. As a result, drones are restricted to operating within only a few kilometers of the pilot. Video footage from the drone can only be streamed back to the pilot, and there is no way of centralizing information from multiple drones.

Leveraging an existing framework – that of 4G technology - is proving to be the best solution to expand drone functionality.

However, implementing 4G technology isn’t as easy as plugging a 4G module and SIM into a drone. The flight controller in drones is built to store just flight paths and controls and cannot handle the storage and transmission of images, let alone videos. Also, communication with the drone must be secure – warranting the need for an encrypted control center.

In a revolutionary step ahead for drones, UrbanMatrix Technologies has successfully implemented two-way 4G connectivity in both of their drones - UMT Hawk4G and UMT Sparrow PPK. They’ve enabled communication to their drones from just a few kilometers, to anywhere in the world. This has been accomplished by developing specialized onboard infrastructure, specifically to streamline the dataflow and transmission through a 4G network.

So, what does 4G enable? It enables remote access to the drone, from anywhere in the world. From an office on the other side of the world, you can freely control the sensors mounted on the drone, granting a complete view of anywhere the drone flies. Data can be automatically logged into the cloud, allowing for later review and progress management. Various flight parameters such as battery levels and speed can be constantly monitored, to help identify potential problems before they turn critical.

Through 4G, fleet management is facilitated by having all your drones communicate with a common platform. UrbanMatrix allows this access through an encrypted web-based cloud platform called UMT Console. Through this, one can simultaneously and securely view all missions being flown in real-time – including planned flight paths, and missions executed. Having access to data such as available pilots, drones and their health helps plan future missions efficiently. Through UMT Console, one can update drone software over the air without any interruption in operations.

4G drones have huge implications for law enforcement and security. Surveillance of crime scenes and tracking of fugitives can now bed one from a remote command center, enabling superior coordination of forces. In addition, 4G enables processing drone video footage in real-time using Artificial Intelligence models to automatically identify humans. Now, there is no need for continuous and exhausting monitoring of the video footage, as trespassers or events can automatically be detected, and the appropriate authorities be notified.

Along with the capability to control the payloads, 4G can allow one to assume complete control of a drone, for BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operations. This could be the most reliable solution to completely automated drone flight, and with the government strongly supporting developments for implementing BVLOS operations, 4G could open up a whole plethora of opportunities for drones. Foremost among these opportunities is drone delivery, which is predicted to become a multi-billion dollar industry in the next 5 years.

4G is still hindered by the lack of cellular coverage in some locations. However, a large portion of civilized areas are already covered by 4G networks and the coverage is steadily growing. The development of 5G networks promises far greater functionality and it could quickly expand drone functionality well beyond what we think is possible now.

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