It s The Age Of Drones For Telcos

The unbelievable demand for drone applications across sectors continues to soar. The case is being pushed harder now than ever with the arrival of 5G. But interestingly, the emergence of drone applications in the era of 5G means that telcos have new business opportunities.

Not too long ago, drones were assumed to be of use to the defence more than any other sector, but that is changing fast as its applications across domains offer a lot of promise to humanity at large. Drones are already pushing the envelope by revolutionising the areas of disaster response, rescue, surveying, mining, maintenance monitoring, home deliveries, mapping, crop monitoring, law enforcement, and surveillance. But the drone applications have so far been effective for just short ranges or within the visual line of sight (VLOS). This could change greatly with the arrival of 5G as it will provide the drones with unmatched connectivity at an increased bandwidth and low latency, which was not possible before.

Being at the frontlines of bringing forth 5G, telcos have the opportunity to be the provider of the required connectivity for drone operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). “It’s a significant opportunity for the telecom providers as the majority of these opportunities will happen in what is called the lower airspace. And in this lower airspace, the connectivity of the cellular infrastructure, the existing investment can be utilised,” says Thomas Neubauer, VP of Business Development and Innovations at TEOCO and co-creator of AirborneRF.

With 5G, drones will be capable of leveraging live video over distances and bringing cloud and AI into the picture in real-time. Therefore, telcos are uniquely positioned to provide reliable command and control connectivity, which will be required for drone operations.

According to Adroit Market Research, the drone market is forecasted to grow to USD 144 billion by 2025 at a 40.7 per cent CAGR, and this presents network providers with a unique chance to tap into a new business opportunity.

Switzerland’s leading telecom provider Swisscom has been one of the early movers that has been exploring the drone business for a few years now. “[..] Swisscom has been investing in services designed to bring forward the drone business for more than five years. Our main interest was in connectivity service enabling for the airspace in order to create an attractive environment for BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) drone flights. Furthermore, our business development activities in the field of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) are focused on providing digitalized airspace control solutions,” says Klaus Pilz, Senior Business Development Manager, Swisscom.

TEOCO’s AirborneRF solution is helping Swisscom unlock monetisation opportunities for the operator by bridging the gap between the cellular and aviation world. This will allow different drone ecosystem players to come together to engage with the live Swisscom network data, which will, in turn, enable new operational use cases.

Telcos will have to essentially leverage their existing investment smartly for drone business development, and TEOCO’s AirborneRF provides the necessary tools and mechanisms to make this happen.

Challenges 

While drone applications provide opportunities to telcos and technology providers alike, airspace regulations worldwide are proving to be the biggest hurdle. And without the necessary regulations in place, it is difficult to scale business.

Further, some differences emerge between the aviation and telecom industries when it comes to regulations and ROI. In the aviation industry, the primary concern remains to be airspace safety, whereas, in telecom, any new innovation is essentially required to show some ROI in 6-18 months. This means that there needs to be some alignment between the two industries in this regard.  

“So far, Switzerland is still waiting for the European U-Space regulation, which then still has to be adopted to Swiss necessities. This makes it difficult today to conclude the services with which telecom companies like us may leverage UAVs,” explains Klaus Pilz, Senior Business Development Manager, Swisscom.

“Nevertheless, we feel that Swisscom is able to accelerate the UAV business along with “UAV relevant quality of service connectivity” for the airspace by providing flight planning supporting data services, including coverage status in the airspace, people density analytics, and weather data. These data are of the utmost importance to accelerate the SORA (Specific Operational Risk Assessment) approval process – a prerequisite to make drone-based business commercially feasible,” he adds.

How About India?

As India awaits the 5G rollout, telecom provider Jio has begun using drones for tower surveillance and maintenance in the country. It further plans to use drone tech to survey sites as it looks to undertake tower rollout for 5G coverage. It is currently unknown whether the telco will venture into exploring drone business opportunities in the near future.

Considering the high-population density, drones could find great use cases in India. 3-D transportation via drones seems like the natural next step. “The authorities in India have announced that they will significantly invest into the third dimension for any type of transport of data, cargo, and people to become one of the leading players globally in unmanned uncrewed aviation,” says Thomas Neubauer.

“We see that there is a lot of drive coming out of India. We have made our first steps to help customers in India, but we have not yet deployed operational systems for that so far. But we are looking forward to see how we can best support also some of our existing customers in that space,” Neubauer adds.

Earlier in August 2022, Bharti Airtel awarded its first 5G contract in the country to Ericsson. This will enable the telco to deploy power-efficient 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) products and solutions from the Ericsson Radio System and Ericsson microwave mobile transport solutions. Both companies have also worked together in the past to showcase the potential of drones to power multiple use cases.

Taking into consideration all these developments, it will be interesting to see how telcos in India and worldwide position themselves to tap into the 3-D universe of drone technology with the arrival of 5G.


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