Elsight reckons 5G will be key driver to large-scale drone delivery
Rollout of 5G along with greater airspace regulation may be just what is needed to usher in an era of large-scale commercial drone delivery for both business and residential areas.
Using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for delivery has existed for a while, however large-scale commercial drone delivery services for both business and residential areas are yet to arrive.
However, unmanned connectivity technology company Elsight (ASX:ELS) believes continuing rollout of 5G, along with tightening airspace regulations, could help accelerate the progress of this exciting and essential technological shift.
Elsight CEO Yoav Amitai said most commercial drone operations are performed within the operator’s line of sight (LOS), which puts a practical restriction on range at about 500 meters.
“While some last-mile delivery services use this option by flying a drone to the delivery destination from a van, this approach is not massively scalable,” he said.
“Widespread BVLOS operations are needed to create large-scale autonomous drone delivery services and unlock true commercial viability.”
The regulatory framework that will enable this is still under development. However, some authorities such as the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have begun to approve waivers for BVLOS drone flights on a case-by-case basis, subject to a rigorous and demanding approval process.
Amitai said traditional radio frequency (RF) drone data links are limited to radio line-of-sight, meaning that for autonomous long-range delivery drones that may operate through networks spanning hundreds of miles, an alternative command, control, and communication solution is required.
“Satellite communications (SATCOM) is commonly used to provide large military drones with connectivity that is available almost anywhere on the planet, with close to 100% uptime,” he said.
However, Amitai said this will not be viable for most commercial delivery drones, as SATCOM terminals are relatively bulky and unlikely to fit the drone’s size, weight, and power (SWaP) budget.
He said SATCOM services also come with expensive subscription costs that will eat into commercial profits.
“5G cellular communications have the potential to satisfy the requirements for this missing link,” he said.
“With data rates of up to 10 gigabits per second, 5G is up to 10 times faster than its predecessor and provides latency as low as 1 millisecond.
“These significant upgrades make it ideal for bandwidth-hungry and safety-critical applications such as drone delivery.”
Amitai said 5G is also the most power-efficient form of cellular communications to date, meaning that even smaller drone platforms will be able to take advantage of cellular data links.
He said armed with this state-of-the-art connectivity and the ability to fly and operate almost anywhere, drones could unlock a wide variety of commercial and industrial delivery applications.
These are not just limited to groceries and household goods, but could also include:
To ensure peace of mind, an essential component of any delivery service is the ability to find out exactly where your package is at any point during the process.
Precision tracking is also critical for safety and ensures that delivery drones will not collide with buildings, trees, other aircraft, and a variety of other potential hazards.
“Thanks to its extremely low latency, 5G is ideal for providing highly accurate real-time tracking,” Amitai said.
He said Vodafone has already tested remote tracking of 5G-enabled vehicles, achieving position accuracy to within 10 centimetres using precise point positioning-real time kinematics (PPP-RTK) technology and a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) network by Sapcorda.
“As an additional benefit, 5G can also support a larger density of connected devices – up to 1 million in an area of 1 square kilometre,” he said.
“This allows 5G networks to easily support swarm applications and large fleets of delivery drones.”
Amitai said the recent advances in processing power and miniature embedded computing systems, artificial intelligence (AI) is now used for a variety of drone applications.
Computer vision algorithms can provide autonomous delivery drones with several safety-critical features, such as enhanced navigation and detect-and-avoid capabilities.
“Onboard embedded systems that can handle the intensive processing required for AI applications can be relatively power-hungry, and therefore may not fit into the SWaP budgets of smaller drones,” Amitai said.
“However, there is a way around this – the required processing may be offloaded to cloud servers, which can do the math and return the actionable results to the drone.
He said with its high data throughput and extremely low latency, 5G is an essential part of this process.
5G coverage is still far from widespread, and several drone-specific issues relating to interference and altitude still need to be solved. However, Amitai said there is no doubt that in time 5G will be a massive bonus to the drone industry and particularly delivery drones.
“5G offers impressive throughput and near-real time latency, is highly secure, and theoretically allows BVLOS missions to take place at any distance away from a control station, if cellular towers are in range,” he said.
“These characteristics make it ideal for incorporation into a safe and reliable drone communications link, which is an essential component of any BVLOS platform.”
Amitai said Elsight’s lightweight, compact connectivity solution Halo is 5G-ready and ideal for early adopters and systems integrators looking to create a drone delivery platform that can take advantage of the next generation of cellular connectivity.
“Halo uses sophisticated cellular bonding technology to aggregate up to four cellular datalinks from multiple providers, providing a secure and reliable communications solution,” he said
“Halo also provides seamless switching to a backup 3G/4G/LTE link should 5G connectivity be lost.”
Elsight is looking to partner with drone delivery companies and other service providers who are similarly committed to driving the evolution of the drone industry and furthering the development of BVLOS flight.
“Our Value Investment Program (VIP) is designed to accelerate drone start-ups and experienced operators alike into BVLOS operations, providing full support with every step of their journey and enabling them to scale the use of Halo as they grow,” he said.
This article was developed in collaboration with Elsight, a Stockhead advertiser at the time of publishing.
This article does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.