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Mobile Communications May 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

In-Flight Communications for Drones

Why is this topic significant?

If drone use expands greatly, existing practices will be inadequate for public safety. Decisions about drone safety and appropriate roles for drones are closely related to decisions about drone communications.

Description

Recent US government solicitations aim to recruit public and private parties to help develop (apparently, at their own expense) technologies and practices for drones that would routinely fly beyond an operator's line of sight, fly near airports, receive control signals from moving vehicles, and otherwise operate in ways that are now highly restricted in the United States and many other nations. One solicitation, which the US Department of Transportation is coordinating, requests local, state, and other government agencies demonstrate safe and compelling use cases for operations that don't conform to current rules. Another solicitation, coordinated by NASA, requests participation in advanced R&D for the future of drone-traffic-management systems (essentially, air-traffic-control systems for low-altitude unoccupied vehicles). Participants will need to make appropriate use of wireless technologies for announcing a drone's location, for controlling drones, and possibly for anticollision measures.

A drone can have lines of sight with many base stations at once, leading to interference and degradation of wireless performance. During December 2017, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) published test results that show how performance degrades as expected when airways become crowded. Various measures that mitigated interference included use of smart antennas in drones, cell sites that perform beamforming in both horizontal and vertical dimensions, and coordinated concurrent connections between a drone and multiple base stations. Most 4G connections to base stations were at less than 10 Mbit/s. In contrast, a feasibility study that the 3GPP published in 2016 proposed a 20 Mbit/s minimum requirement for connections to drones flying as fast as 300 km/h. Some developers of 5G systems aim to close such gaps in wireless capabilities for drones.

As of late April 2018, only 19 people had permission to pilot drones in the United States beyond their lines of sight. Four people had permission to pilot drones from moving vehicles in populated areas. Violators lack insurance and can suffer costly losses.

Implications

Today's line-of-sight requirement is key to managing safety risks. To expand range and scope of use, commercial users will need rational rules of engagement. Note that semiautonomous operations and automatic-collision-avoidance technologies might become common. Nevertheless, ability to use wireless communications to manually override automatic controls seems likely to remain a requirement for the foreseeable future. Cellular services could play important roles in providing such communications. Relaxed rules could depend on wireless-communications channels' having increased reliability, availability, and capacity.

Impacts/Disruptions

Markets and rule books alike are immature. Stakeholders simply don't know how they would maintain safety if millions of commercial drones were in service. Likewise, the wireless technologies, flight protocols, and business models that would prevail in a drone-rich economy remain to be determined.

In NASA's preliminary proposal, independent service providers would have a role in aiding drone operators to broadcast identity and intentions to other operators and to a centralized traffic-management system for low-altitude operations. In turn, the independent services might contract with owners of cellular infrastructure. Cellular services might be well positioned to be gatekeepers for functions such as streaming video, reporting in-flight locations and other data, and receiving course corrections. Alternatively, cellular services might cut out the independent-services intermediary. But if they do so, they will need to play active roles in ensuring safety, not just supply communications links.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Aircraft manufacturing, electronics manufacturing, cloud services, managed services, advanced research, agriculture, real estate, property development, property management, general contracting, construction trades

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Satellites for Broadband Communications

Why is this topic significant?

Several new private space programs expect to transform roles for satellite communications by 2023.

Description

At least eight companies have regulatory approvals or have submitted applications to provide broadband communications services to US customers via planned low- and mid-Earth-orbit satellite constellations. Three companies that each plan to deploy relatively large constellations have received permits: OneWeb (720 satellites), SpaceX (4,425 satellites), and Telesat Canada (117 satellites). Federal regulations require that each company have half of its constellations in orbit within six years of approval. To comply with its current permit, SpaceX would need to launch an average of about seven satellites per week for the next six years.

Other applications are pending. OneWeb has asked regulators for permission to deploy a further 1,280 satellites. Boeing has applied to deploy about 3,000 satellites. Other companies with applications in process include Theia Holdings (112 satellites), LeoSat (80 satellites), O3b Networks (60 satellites), and Viasat (24 satellites). In addition, the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation plans to deploy a 300-satellite constellation. People's Daily illustrated its March 2018 report of the announcement with a 2014 image of a satellite tested by Xinwei Telecom, perhaps indicating that company is well positioned to be the customer-facing service provider for the constellation.

Implications

Satellites seem unlikely to provide direct wireless connections to mass-market mobile devices in the foreseeable future, though at least two players, LeoSat and Xinwei Telecom, have expressed long-term intentions to do so. Initially, all of the proposed satellites above aim to deliver broadband services to fixed locations worldwide or across transcontinental boundaries. Satellite dishes at cellular base stations would provide backhaul and eliminate some needs for fiber or terrestrial wireless links.

The March 2018 Viewpoints describes expected needs for backhaul in 5G networks. Existing satellite services for backhaul are important for improving communications in the least-served parts of the world, but satellite delays cause the resulting services to be substandard. Proposed constellations include many satellites that would operate at low orbit, promising low delays and fully competitive backhaul capabilities—not just in the least-served regions but also in urban centers worldwide, where demand for expanded bit-carrying capacity might be greatest.

Impacts/Disruptions

If even a quarter of the planned number of satellites go into service, the world's existing fleet of roughly 1,800 operating satellites could more than double. But license holders now need to raise enormous investments and manage some of the world's most complex projects. Even tycoons with silver tongues will face hard questions from prospective partners. (Elon Musk is the founder and CEO of SpaceX, and Richard Branson is a director and investor in OneWeb.) Earth-bound competitors could deploy much fiber and fixed-wireless infrastructure by the time proposed broadband satellites come into service. And very small satellites, though unsuited for supporting large-scale broadband services, could support many machine-to-machine and Internet of Things connections, eroding some of the prospects for broadband-satellite competitors.

Nevertheless, investors' current high tolerance for risk, coupled with high levels of technology-development activity, suggest that one or more broadband constellations will be providing worldwide service by 2023. Governments could be anchor customers, as they are for narrowband constellations. Consolidation could reduce the number of players and strengthen the resulting competitors. Investors might not conquer telecom industries but might instead capture a sustainable market share and fulfill their visions of conquering space.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Satellite manufacturing, communications services, launch services, ground-station operations, investment banking, Earth imaging, agriculture, energy exploration, defense, geoscience research

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: