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What is 5G, and what does it mean for drones?

You’ve heard the buzzword at CES, drone conferences, on forums and in tech company marketing. 5G. It’s the future of drones. But what is 5G, and what does it actually mean for the drone industry?

5G is short for “fifth-generation networks.” In human-speak, 5G means significantly faster networks than the current standard, 4G.

For example, 5G is expected to allow you to download an entire movie to your phone within seconds, while it could take many, many times that to download a movie over 4G.

In the drone industry, that means not just the ability to quickly transfer massive files from a mapping project. In drones, 5G could advance live drone videos for use cases like broadcast TV, surveillance, drone racing and more.

It’s expected to be a game-changer for any technology that needs to send large amounts of data, like security cameras, self-driving cars, video games and yes, drones.

“Harnessing the ultra-low latency and higher bandwidth of Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband, drones have the potential to engage in data collection, transmission and near-real-time analysis at a truly transformational level,” according to a statement from Verizon. “When it comes to the future of drones and 5G, the sky’s the limit.”

What are the predecessors of 5G?

Before 5G, there was 4G, and 3G. And so on. But what if we go back even more, to the 90s? The 90s largely were based on transmitting data with an uplink connection. With real-time remote control and video streaming, we got uplink and downlink technology. In the past few years, drones gained the ability to connect with the 4G mobile data network.

5G drones WiFi RF 4G LTE

The folks over at Drone Industry Insights put together an infographic showing the evolution of drone connectivity. Their graphic begins in 2000, pre-WiFi enabled flying. Flying model aircraft would have been controlled manually via radio frequency.

Who are the key drone players in 5G?

All the major network providers like Qualcomm and AT&T are vying for a piece of 5G. Verizon has gone so far as to put out a television ad promoting 5G specifically as it relates to drones. That commercial for Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband showed how drones work in search and rescue. With 5G, first responders would better be able to connect multiple drones from miles to help find victims faster during a natural disaster.

5G drones agriculture
5G network for control smart farm with autonomous technology. Agriculture 4.0

How 5G could benefit drones

There are seemingly endless reasons why drones could benefit from 5G. Here are a few specific use cases for how 5G could benefit drones:

Disaster recovery: Much like what the above Verizon commercial demonstrated, 5G could allow drones to communicate and share real-time data with each other and people on the ground. Faster speeds mean first responders can be dispatched more quickly, structure damaged can be faster assessed, etc.

Delivery: Drone delivery will require many, many drones in the air at once. And that’s aided by 5G. Whether it’s your new sneakers from Amazon or bringing medical supplies to a rural area, drone delivery will be contingent on better networks to deliver at a wide scale.

Enhanced computer vision: 5G means drones could do more work to transmit more data. That could mean flying over roads to conduct traffic and pedestrian flow analysis and real-time visualization of data trends, resulting in smarter designs and safer cities. Verizon has demonstrated how, in factories and warehouses, 5G drones employing computer vision could identify and scan actual products instead of barcodes, increasing operational efficiency.

Drone racing: It’s not all enterprise operations that benefit from 5G. 5G could be what it takes to bring drone racing from small, niche sport to highly produced spectacle, much like e-sports. With 5G’s expanded bandwidth, racing drones could have uninterrupted transmission of live 4K or 360-degree video, making racing more interesting and high quality for spectators.

But 5G goes deeper than specific use-cases. ” In principle, there are three major needs for connecting drones by means of 5G cellular data: UTM, BVLOS flights and sensor data transmission,” argues Drone Industry Insights.

Courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

5G is essential to to use cases people want today like drone delivery, but also relevant to use cases we haven’t even thought of yet. That’s made possible, DII said, through 5G’s impact in:

Unmanned drone traffic control: As many drones fly through the airspace, “cellular networks are candidates for the establishment of a controlled and reliable system for drone operation,” DII said.

Flights beyond visual line of sight: Most drones today are controlled via radio remote control systems with a limited range of about 3-5km. Cellular networks can provide connections over unlimited distances (assuming the drone has a cellular network coverage).

Sensor data transmission: This would enable data collected from drones to be transmitted beyond just the ground station (again, about 3-5km away), but theoretically to anywhere in the world.

5G drone delivery

How drones can benefit 5G

We commonly hear about drones being more efficient thanks to 5G. But drones could actually help propel 5G tech along faster. A number of companies have suggested that drones themselves should help spread the internet to areas that lack reliable connectivity — and connectivity through 5G will make it reliable.

A post from Qualcomm suggested that multiple drones flying autonomously within close proximity could help spread signals with no gaps to the ground.

Of course, they likely won’t be your standard quadcopter. These drones, like Facebook’s Aquila, would have an airline-sized wingspan and be able to fly for months (though Facebook killed the project in 2018).

Project Skittles uses drones and augmented reality to create brightly colored dots that form a gridded map of wireless signal strength. Image courtesy of IBM.

Even if they’re not spreading 5G, drones might be able to make 5G signals stronger. An IBM project called “Project Skittles” uses drones plus augmented reality to survey and visualize connectivity strength to help with better antenna placement and tuning, which ultimately would help deliver better signal coverage and connectivity.

So what’s holding back 5G drones?

One of the biggest challenges for 5G and drones: maximum coverage.

“For a safe and effective usage from drones, on the one hand, there must be a comprehensive network coverage in place,” Drone Industry Insights said in their report.

An Austrian-based study released in April 2020 found that current technological limitations prevented drones from maintaining a consistent 5G connection. That not only puts a damper on data transfer rates and makes live video impossible if the connection is broken.

Still, most experts estimate that 5G will experience widespread rollout between 2021 and 2024. “I think it’s dependent on forward-looking industries to lean in,” said Nicola Palmer, senior VP of technology and product development at Verizon at a 5G panel during the 2019 MIT Platform Summit. “The examples are out there. Leaning in will dictate how fast it happens.”

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