Flying future drones beyond line-of-sight with 4G LTE

In the same month that a British team flew a drone 35 km across the English Channel, companies are beginning to explore how to control unmanned aerial vehicles over long distances. As it turns out, the technology to fly beyond line-of-sight is already available and all around us, even if current aviation laws won’t allow us to use it.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, US telecoms giant AT&T announced a partnership with Intel to explore using 4G LTE to connect drones. If drone delivery services such as Amazon Prime Air want to get off the ground, they will need this type of low latency, far-reaching mobile connectivity.

LTE, not to mention future 5G technologies, could be the perfect solution.

While 4G is designed primarily to connect devices on the ground, the AT&T Internet of Things (IoT) team and the AT&T Foundry innovation center in Palo Alto, California will be working with Intel to evaluate LTE performance at higher altitudes. They will be testing to see how it affects live video streaming, transmitting telematics and viewing flight information.

The technology already works. At Mobile World Congress 2016, Intel showed off the RealSense-equipped Yuneec Typhoon H drone streaming video and telematics over LTE.

“This engagement pushes the boundaries in the UAV industry and will pave the way to a connected world in the Internet of Things,” said Anil Nanduri, vice president of the New Technology Group and general manager of New Markets within the Perceptual Computing Group at Intel.

Typhoon Yunnec H at MWC 2016
An Intel Corporation demonstration team displays the company’s technology in a Yuneec unmanned aerial vehicle at Mobile World Congress. Shawn Morgan/Intel Corporation.

Demonstrations like this help to address the technical, safety, privacy and security concerns that drones currently pose, showing that future long-range flights can be controlled. But the law of the land still requires that Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA) are flown “within direct, unaided visual line-of-sight (VLOS) of the pilot.”

While anybody can buy a drone and fly it, the CAA rules governing commercial use in the UK restrict drones to a maximum height of 400 feet and a distance of 500 metres from the pilot. In addition, drones weighing more than 7kg can’t fly within 150 metres of congested areas or within 50 metres of “persons, vehicles, vessels and property,” unless those persons are ‘under the control of the person in charge of the SUA’.

Despite some recent horror stories about drones nearly colliding with aircraft at Stansted and crashing into the Empire State Building, there are signs that aviation authorities are warming to the idea of beyond line-of-sight UAV operations.

According to reports, Amazon is testing its Prime Air delivery drones in the UK.

In the US, for example, Xcel Energy gained FAA permission to fly Vapor 55 helicopter drones to inspect transmission lines. While Amazon is reportedly testing its Prime Air delivery service outside the US in drone-friendlier skies above Canada, the Netherlands and the UK.

“Intel believes UAVs have great potential,” said Anil Nanduri, “from inspections, precision agriculture to deliveries of consumer goods and providing emergency disaster relief. We want to grow this market through our collaborations and by integrating new technologies and compute to UAVs.”

Those technologies and improved computing power will enable future drones to survey the landscape, inspect buildings, compete in races and even deliver a parcel to you on the same day you ordered it. The sky, it seems, is no longer the limit. — Dean Evans (@evansdp)

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