Vodafone joins consortium to test 4G and 5G drones, ready UK skies for robot deliveries
Vodafone has joined a UK drone-testing consortium as network provider to develop tools and processes to enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly safely in the same airspace as manned aircraft.
Vodafone will provide 4G and 5G connectivity to the National Beyond Visual Line of Sight Experimentation Corridor (NBEC) consortium, which includes Cranfield University, Blue Bear Research and Thales. The consortium aims to create an ‘experimentation corridor’, a controlled strip of airspace between Blue Bear’s facility in Oakley, in Bedford, and Cranfield University.
The first test flights took place at Cranfield Airport in February.
The NBEC flight corridor will be used to demonstrate how 4G and 5G can be used to identify and track the location of drones in real time, and ensure autonomous ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) flights are safe. Regulators will rule to ensure drones are constantly monitored when flying BVLOS, and enforce no-fly zones around sensitive buildings, including schools, hospitals, prisons, government buildings and chemical plants.
Mobile connectivity will complement satellite-based GPS location systems, which are good for location estimates but are open to jamming and compromise. Drone-based mobile connectivity would provide a secondary feed of location-based information, enabling a more robust and trusted picture of the drone’s location. Such capabilities will be key to the air traffic management systems required to allow the routine and safe flying of commercial drones in the future, said Vodafone.
Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone’s business unit in the UK, said: “Drones offer exciting opportunities for the future that will benefit society and the economy. However, we need to make sure they are used safely and responsibly. We are delighted to bring our mobile connectivity expertise to the NBEC consortium so that drone technology can be further tested and developed.”
Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University, said: “The addition of Vodafone will be a significant boost to our capabilities as we develop NBEC. Upon completion, NBEC will be a national asset that will help unlock the potential of a modernised UK airspace.”
Ian Williams-Wynn, managing director of Blue Bear, said: “The creation of NBEC allows new technologies to be integrated and tested together to accelerate leading edge research and create a blueprint for UK drone activities. Expanding the consortium will increase NBEC’s capability, and accelerate the expansion of NBEC to become the place to test drones in the UK”.
European businesses are considering using drones for tasks including rapid delivery of small, high-value payloads like medical supplies, the monitoring of critical assets such as energy pipelines, and rescue missions in hazardous conditions.
Vodafone quoted figures from PwC in its press note that claim drone use for deliveries will contribute £42 billion to UK GDP by 2030, and deliver £16 billion in annual cost savings, compared with traditional methods. Drones will also create 600,000 jobs, the research predicts. The European Union estimates regulated drone services could contribute in excess of €15 billion annually to the European economy by 2050, with over 100,000 new jobs created.
In November last year, Vodafone completed the first live tests in Europe of a full cellular system for both short and long-range vehicular communications, as well as for monitoring and managing multiple UAVs in the same air space.
Vodafone’s trial of mobile connected drone technology, in Germany and Spain, was part of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s U-Space programme. Its Radio Positioning System (RPS) uses a 4G modem and SIM attached to a drone, enabling a self-learning artificial intelligence system to calculate the position of the drone. The system will be able to indicate if a drone has veered off an agreed flight path, helping to safeguard aircraft, civilians, sensitive facilities and other drones.
The trial demonstrated that existing 4G networks, which are optimised for ground-based users, could simultaneously be used to monitor drone flights at up to 120 metres above ground level. This confirmed that RPS could be used as a back-up to GPS location, which is easier to disable or spoof than mobile technology supported by secure SIM cards. Conventional radar does not work with small devices like drones.