Vodafone, Ericsson trial automated flight paths for connected drones

UK fixed and mobile operator and comms technology provider take to the sky to ensure safe passage for drones

Vodafone and Ericsson have successfully tested safe sky corridors for drones using intelligent aspects of the mobile network.

The development, described by the companies as a technological breakthrough, is designed to allow professional drone operators, critical national infrastructure providers and emergency services to deliver medical, commercial and industrial supplies, safe in the knowledge that they will arrive at the correct destination on time while remaining connected to the mobile network.

In a proof-of-concept trial conducted at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany, the companies used intelligence from the network to produce coverage maps, which enabled the drone to stay in areas with a good signal up in the air. They also collated anonymised mobile user information so the drone could avoid crowded areas down on the ground and did this using information obtained via Vodafone’s Network Exposure Layer.

In practice, this works by Vodafone providing these two key pieces of information to trusted third parties via application programming interfaces (APIs), enabling users to plot a predetermined path for the drone, ensuring constant contact with the control centre, even when out of sight.

Looking at real-life use cases that could be derived from this scenario, Vodafone could potentially offer a hospital access, via an API, to non-sensitive network information to send a drone to the scene of an accident. In a separate test simulation in Spain recently, Vodafone flew a lightweight defibrillator to the scene of a cardiac arrest patient using a drone controlled by 5G.

As part of the trial, Vodafone and Ericsson also explored ways to use the network to control key features of the drone, such as being able to improve the definition of the video instantly without impacting other services. This is particularly useful in situations where the video is not required for the entire mission, such as being able to inspect a suspension bridge or check on the condition of a mountaineer.

“The mobile network is a data-rich asset that can be responsibly and securely utilised to aid society,” said Johan Wibergh, Vodafone Group chief technology officer. “We are evolving our software-driven, intelligent network into a powerful platform that can deliver new digital services. The responsible use of drones is just one such example, but there will be many more.

“APIs will speed up the adoption of drones for commercial and public sector use, bringing many benefits, such as being able to assess fires, deliver medical supplies, and help businesses survey hazardous conditions such as construction sites, power lines and our own mobile masts, more quickly and safely.”

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Erik Ekudden, senior vice-president, CTO and head of group function technology at Ericsson, added: “Drones are immensely powerful tools for many businesses and we are only scratching the surface of the possibilities they open up, which makes our collaboration with Vodafone all the more exciting.

“Smarter network capabilities on our reliable mobile network will enable key industries such as healthcare, construction and agriculture to accelerate site deployment, reduce health and safety hazards, and help save lives. With this technology, service providers can expand their cellular IoT [internet of things] services for enterprises and confidently meet regulatory guidelines.”

Such cellular-connected drones are part of Vodafone’s aim to redefine its technology architecture on a telco-as-a-service model, based on platforms that deliver new software, video and data applications at scale, as revealed in its latest results, announced on 16 November 2020.

By extracting intelligence from its converged pan-European and African networks, combined with the use of open source software components, Vodafone says it can offer developers and businesses a cost-effective and quick way of automating services for millions of customers.

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