Internet of Drones: Why the sky is not the limit

Recently, our seminal work “The sky is not the limit: LTE for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” received the 2021 award IEEE Communications Society Fred W. Ellersick Award, which is a prestigious annual award for the best article published in any IEEE Communications Society journal in the previous three calendar years. We thank the IEEE Communications Society for awarding us the award, which recognizes the contributions of the people at Ericsson who advance communications technology.

dr Ismail Guvencha professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at North Carolina State University, nominated the paper “The Sky Is Not the Limit” for the 2021 IEEE Communications Society Fred W. Ellersick Award. In particular, Guvenc praised the contributions of the people of Ericsson and noted that “Ericsson has pioneered the study of drones connected to mobile phones, identifying the main key challenges and developing innovative solutions”.

Guvenc continued: “In addition to their 3GPP standardization efforts, Ericsson engineers have published several impactful academic articles in the literature related to mobility and interference management for cellular-enabled drones. These works have been influencing academic research in this area.”

In this blog post, we present a retrospective of our “Sky is Not the Limit” journey and an outlook on connected drones for years to come.

Overview of our trip

Figure 1: Overview of our “The sky is not the limit” trip.

Mobile-enabled drones

Commercial drone applications are becoming more common. Drones are already widely used for news gathering (photography and videography, for example) and for inspection and mapping in industrial applications. They are also being tested in agricultural and logistics deployments.

The potential of drone technology will only be truly unleashed when both technological capabilities and regulations allow for autonomous operation beyond visual line of sight. Secure wide-area wireless network connectivity is required to safely expand drone operations and unlock the potential of drone technology for commercial applications.

At Ericsson, we believe that mobile networks are well suited to provide the necessary connectivity for drones. To ensure that reliable aerial communication is possible, we have studied the connectivity performance that land mobile networks can provide, as well as the additional capabilities that mobile networks can provide for drone operations and management.

Agricultural drone use case example: remote crop surveillance.

Figure 2: Example agricultural drone use case: remote crop surveillance.

Started a journey with 3GPP Rel-15 standardization

In early 2016, we identified that a key area to study in 3GPP version 15 was to enable drones connected to mobile networks, based on our research paper (something of which was later made public in the seminal article “Sky is Not the Limit “). .

In December 2016, we submitted a new study item proposal on enhanced LTE support for air vehicles to the 3GPP RAN #74 plenary meeting. The proposal attracted much interest, leading to the approval of the study item at the 75th Plenary Meeting of the 3GPP RAN in March 2017. The study item was supported by 35 3GPP members, and Ericsson and NTT DOCOMO together served as rapporteurs for the study element.

The 3GPP study evaluated the performance of LTE networks supporting air vehicles with up to 3GPP Release 14 functionality. The study was completed in December 2017 and the results were documented in the 3GPP TR 36.777 white paper, including comprehensive analysis results, field evaluation and measurement. 3GPP TR 36.777 has become a definitive guide for drones connected to mobile networks and has been widely cited by academia, industry, and regulatory organizations.

The 3GPP study concluded that it is feasible to use existing LTE networks to provide connectivity to drones, but there may be challenges related to interference and mobility. The challenges become more visible when drone density is high. Both implementation and specification-based enhancements were identified during the 3GPP study to address these issues.

After completion of the study item, a follow-up work item was approved at the 3GPP RAN 78 Plenary Meeting in December 2017. Ericsson acted as rapporteur for the work item. The goal of the work item was to specify features that can improve the efficiency and robustness of the terrestrial LTE network to provide more efficient connectivity solutions for drones. This 3GPP work item was completed in June 2018.

In addition to 3GPP Release 15 work on LTE antennas in RAN, 3GPP SA studied remote identification of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Release 16 and continues to investigate more aspects such as connectivity, identification, tracking, application and security. in version 17.

A journey goes beyond 3GPP

After completing work on 3GPP version 15 in connected drones, we have seen increased field testing for connected drones around the world by major carriers and vendors. Several industry organizations, such as the GSMA and CTIA, have established drone special interest groups to develop new use cases and help create an open and trustworthy regulatory environment. Furthermore, GSMA and GUTMA have been cooperating to align the mobile and aviation industries.

The world has also witnessed increasing efforts by governments to safely integrate civil and public drone operations into airspace systems. An exemplary effort is the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) in the US. The IPP concluded in October 2020, after which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched a new program called BEYOND to continue working on the remaining challenges of UAS integration.

At Ericsson we have been contributing to relevant forums to align mobile network capabilities with drone traffic management and communication requirements. Ericsson is a full member of the Open Generation Consortium (Open Gen), which initially focuses on use cases related to the operation of 5G-equipped drones in the United States.

We have also seen a much greater boost in academic research in this area, leading to the creation of the IEEE Communications Society Emerging Technologies Initiative on Airborne Communications and the Society for Vehicular Technology Ad Hoc Committee on Drones. from IEEE. We have been contributing to both initiatives since they were created.

Recently, as part of the NSF PAWR Industry Consortium program, Ericsson contributed state-of-the-art equipment to the Airborne Research and Experimentation Platform for Advanced Wireless Platforms (AERPAW) to 5G application testing The AERPAW platform is designed for experimentation with drone communications. This work will accelerate the research and commercialization of connected drones.

Guvenc, NSF AERPAW Project Manager, said: “Our NSF AERPAW project team has been working closely with Ericsson engineers to implement a 4G/5G NSA wireless network in Raleigh. This Ericsson network will be used by the broader US wireless community for advanced wireless experiments with drones. The AERPAW team thanks Ericsson for his help and support of academic research”.

Towards the Internet of Drones and 6G

Wide area network coverage is needed to safely expand drone operations for missions beyond visual line of sight. Mobile networks can provide secure wide-area wireless connectivity, using proven technology based on global standards and mobile-licensed spectrum.

Already today, LTE networks can support the initial deployment of low-altitude drones. The significantly enhanced capabilities of 5G networks will provide more efficient and effective mobile connectivity for large-scale drone deployments with more diverse applications. As 5G deployments continue to gain momentum around the world, network complexity and the number of sites will grow. Connected drones, in turn, can help speed implementation and site deployment while reducing health and safety risks, as explained, for example, in the blog post. Afraid of heights? Drones, AI and digitization to the rescue!.

Video surveillance of rural network infrastructures using drones

Figure 3: Video surveillance of rural network infrastructure by drone

To further enhance the capabilities of 5G networks to serve drones, we are driving drone-related enhancements to version 18 of the 5G NR standard. Our vision is for NR networks to be even more capable of serving drones compared to LTE networks.

The future of a drone-connected sky is exciting, despite the challenges we must overcome on the road to 6G. To mention a recent inspiring example, NASA’s Perseverance rover carrying an unmanned helicopter landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. Perhaps now is the time for researchers to consider drone interplanetary communications and networks.

As we continue the “Sky is Not the Limit” journey to 6G, we will remain committed to actively working in relevant forums to align mobile network capabilities with drone communication and traffic management requirements.

Our research team

Photos of the 2021 Fred W Ellersick Award Winners

Want to learn more?

Check out our award-winning article (IEEE Communications Society Fred W. Ellersick Award 2021): The sky is not the limit: LTE for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Read our white paper, Drones and networks: ensuring safe and secure operations to learn more about drones and networks.

What will the connected sky look like towards 6G? Read our recent article Towards 6G with Connected Sky: UAVs and beyond to find out.

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