5G A Key Factor in UAV Traffic Management

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4Q 2018 | IN-5324

Operation Zenith in Manchester provides an interesting outlook for the deployment of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) in the United Kingdom. ABI Research argues that 5G should be considered as the de facto connectivity option that will further enable UTM in airspace management.

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Operation Zenith Is a Perfect Demonstration of UTM


On November 26, Operation Zenith, one of the largest demonstration of coordination and management of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and manned aircraft, took place in Manchester, United Kingdom. During the demonstration, seven UAV use cases were showcased within the controlled zone of Manchester Airport, including equipment delivery, infrastructure inspection, site survey, safeguarding, and airspace management.

This was a joint effort by NATS, the United Kingdom’s main air traffic control and navigation service provider, Altitude Angel, a global UAV traffic management platform company, and Manchester Airport. More than 10 hardware, software, and service vendors led their support, including Vodafone, the United Kingdom’s main cellular connectivity provider. The successful conclusion of Operation Zenith was a showcase of coexistence between two very different air transportation systems, which will further unlock the future economic potential of UAVs.

The Importance of UTM


UTM is a crucial component in the future growth of the drone industry. One of the major challenges for expanded drone use and new classes of applications is the safe operation of aerial systems over populated areas and even in national airspaces. Agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Union have been working intensely to develop UTM to allow coordination and allocation of airspace for different types of Small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) use cases.

In order for UTM to operate effectively, the system must be able to recognize, identify, locate, and communicate with various UAVs that are in the airspace. Current regulations stipulate that all UAVs must be operated within a Visual Line of Sight (VLOS). This ensures that drone operators are physically present during the operation and can respond to any emergency or urgent request immediately. However, in order to harness the full potential of UAVs, they must be enabled to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and in a fully autonomous fashion. In other words, UTM will have access to all command and control, telemetry, geospatial, visual, and even mechanical data of various UAVs. The sensor and communication systems of various drones need to be interoperable or, at the bare minimum, be able to connect to a UTM system to facilitate the exchange of UAV data between the drones and the platform.

Across the industry, there have been many efforts to deploy UTM. National and international agencies like NASA and the European Union are working to deploy UTM in the United States and the European Union, respectively. There are also solutions coming from private companies, such as AirMap, Precision Hawk, Terra Drone, and Unifly.

Why 5G?


Among all wireless communication technologies, 5G is well placed to deliver such a service, for several reasons. First, the low latency and high throughput aspect of 5G allow quick data exchange and update to take place between UAVs and the UTM system. Secondly, given the nationwide coverage area of commercial 5G service, there is no limitation to BVLOS flight in terms of range. 5G uses a radio fingerprinting technique, which matches radio measurements against a central calibrated database. This requires no extra device or upgrade to the cellular network and can be connected directly to UTM. Lastly, and most importantly, each UAV will be equipped with a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, which provides a unique subscriber identification number. This enables UTM to perform drone identification, flight plan authorization, dynamic flight plan update and authorization, and geo-fencing.

It is still very early days for 5G in UAVs. The wireless industry is still years away from 5G commercial deployment. 5G-enabled UAVs are still in the low figures. According to ABI Research’s The Small Unmanned Aerial System Ecosystem market data (MD-SUAS-104), the global shipments of 5G sUAS, a subset of the total UAV market, will grow from several hundred units in 2019 to around 796,000 by 2026. In addition, the UAV industry is extremely fragmented. There are multiple proprietary sensors and communication systems deployed by different hardware and software vendors, which does not scale well or offer much room for innovation, such as proprietary long-range communication link and satellite tracking technology.

Undeterred, many wireless communication vendors have launched their own UTM solutions to promote cellular connectivity as the key connectivity option for UAVs. Nokia, for example, launched its UTM system in 2016. Ericsson has looked extensively into the integration of UTM with a mobile positioning system under 3GPP framework. The unified communication standard within the wireless industry has delivered economies of scale for consumer devices and will be able to resolve pain-points for the UAV industry, which has been impacted by fragmentation and scalability. Right now, it may be a challenge to deploy LTE as the preferred option for UAV. The latency is too high for real-time mission critical applications like drone operation, and the upload bandwidth is insufficient for high-definition videos. However, if 5G is able to reach nationwide coverage and deliver on the promised quality of service and key performance indicators, 5G will play a critical role in the deployment of UTM.