5G networks and the future of drone technology

If you think drone technology is indispensable for some industries today, just wait until it is fitted with the superpowers of 5G network technology.

In words of simple syllable, it will go bang, like a rocket making a beeline for its foray into space.

At least that is the belief of Ericsson, a telecommunications company that, like all other telecommunications companies the world over, is working hard to develop its own version of 5G. Ericsson reckons the advent of 5G Networks would unleash a future for drone technology that is unprecedented in driving innovation across diverse industries.

5G is the next generation of mobile networks, which offers low latency and high-speed connections. It provides more efficient technology, higher data rates and spectrum utilisation to cope with the growth of mobile data traffic and new applications.

Currently, drones are reliant on Wi-Fi, and are effective for certain needs in industrial applications like ports, mines, agriculture, airports, utilities, and inshore and offshore drilling.

In the interview below, Ericsson’s Global Marketing Director, Pooja Jetley looks ahead into what the future holds for drone technology and 5G.

On how cellular networks are addressing industrial needs today

Businesses across multiple industries, from manufacturing to mines to ports, are embracing digital transformation but working at a frantic pace to keep up with emerging customer demands and survive in the face of their future realities. No matter what industry, this high-paced digital transformation will only be realized with high-quality cellular connectivity that enables a countless number of capabilities; getting the business operations up to par, if not ahead, when compared to the competition. Greater safety, scalability and high performance are just a few of the things that cellular connectivity brings. And these use cases delivered by cellular, are literally transforming operations toward efficiencies we would not have imagined only a few years ago.

We know cellular technology will play a pivotal role in the digital future, rapidly reshaping business to thrive in new realities. And while most things are connected by Wi-Fi, we see a greater advantage when these things are powered by cellular connectivity. Don’t get me wrong, Wi-Fi comes with many benefits, however, cellular technology and what comes with 5G in particular, will provide that extra edge – like being adaptable to both indoor and outdoor situations, complying to varying bandwidth needs, and working right out of the box. This makes global deployment easy and most importantly, makes these environments secure – very secure.

One way in which I envision cellular technology accelerating digital transformation and meeting varied business needs is in the use of drones. This should be available commercially in 4G already by the end of this year, and with 5G soon after.

So, drones in industry are now becoming more common?

Yes. In our recent Connected Ports Report: A guide to Making Ports Smarter with Private Cellular Technology study, we identified several use cases in the smart port that can benefit from private cellular networks. One of these is the use of drones in industry – optimizing certain operational steps that are costly to run, avoiding potentially dangerous situations for workers, as well as providing much needed surveillance.

From an operations standpoint, typically as vessels prepare to arrive and anchor at their desired port, certain documentation and paperwork needs get to the vessel prior to entry. This could be anything from customs paperwork to contractual documentation that determine whether the vessel, and the cargo that it contains, is permitted to anchor at the port. Traditionally launch boats comprised of a small crew have taken care of this activity and have done so with relative efficiency. However, this comes at a very high price tag of approximately $1,000 USD per delivery. Our studies show that using drones can prove to be more cost effective and efficient alternative, making these transfers six times faster than the traditional launch and 1/10th of the original very steep cost.  

The drone can also serve as a surveillance tool, as thefts on cargo ships and ports are reported on a regular basis. With high-resolution video cameras, drones can survey ports from various vantage points. They soar over ports and take on a hawk like view of suspicious or irregular activities, or manoeuvre in and around not so blatantly visible places where nefarious activities could take place.    

Pooja Jetley

On the role drone technology has in smart mining.

In the smart mine, one of the use cases involves unmanned drones. Mine workers historically have been put into very dangerous environments, particularly in post blast mine inspections that have posed injuries and in worst cases, fatalities. The unmanned drone – as the name implies means the mine worker is taken away from the surface mine – and instead put in the role of controlling the drone from a remote device. This way, the drone can help monitor, inspect, and map aerial settings at a much faster pace and with more accuracy, helping to find new paths for mine vehicles, determine backfill needs all while taking the mine worker out of a potentially dangerous situation.

But it doesn’t stop there, airports are using drones for security monitoring to identify suspicious people in the wrong places. Power utilities use drones to inspect power lines across large geographies. Agricultural businesses have been using drones to water plants with the added benefit from artificial intelligence (AI) to tell whether the crop is ready for picking or potentially diseased. Shipping warehouses use drones to verify their inventory autonomously rather than manually. The extent of what drones can do and have been doing is mind boggling and at the same time quite exciting because there is so much potential out there especially when we start seeing drones enhanced with 4G, then 5G.

Why would 5G be an ideal solution for drones in a future?

Think about the scenarios I mentioned just now with the added power of 5G drones. With a 5G network, the drone could be automated, meaning there is no need for a pilot or person controlling the drone. Enhanced cameras and video could provide the real-time analytics to help navigate and manoeuvre the drone to more precise places and collect harder to reach surveillance data. 5G could provide video streaming that is much more clear, accurate and reliable than Wi-Fi without any disruptions or interruptions, so the mine or port, for example, can be reassured that what the drone video or camera is filming and showing on the device screen is true to the transmission.

Is there an added benefit to use private networks in these instances?

Yes indeed. A private network keeps very sensitive information encapsulated within the footprint of the area it is serving. So, the threat of hackers or nefarious activity can be minimized or avoided entirely. It is also scalable, to support large coverage for environments that may change, whether from an increase on the number of devices to fluctuations in capacity needs. It also serves a wide range of use cases, both indoor and outdoor, like the drones that just spoke about that are used for smart surveillance and quality inspections. The information being observed and stored by these drones in these use cases demands privacy and reassurance that sensitive information is contained. Something that the private network has been designed to do from the start.  

On how she thinks businesses are going to innovate now that cellular connectivity is everywhere

Once businesses start seeing the value achieved through cellular connectivity, they will be inspired to bring the same value to their industry, their own business. It’s happening now. Ports and mines are just a few of these that are becoming smarter and inspiring other industries. 

Ericsson has had quite a bit of experience in this space and have showed the value of cellular connectivity to a number of industries. One of these stories is around an already highly automated container terminal in Rotterdam World Gateway that was running its data communications through Wi-Fi to AGV, terminal trucks and tablets. The customer found that Wi-Fi was quite unreliable, not secure, and very expensive to run. Ericsson provided a secure private LTE network as the best alternative. Our Dedicated Networks offered the private spectrum needed to upgrade and guarantee communications performance, provide high reliability, and super tight data security. We virtually took this terminal and transformed its communications to an outstanding 99.99 percent availability 365 days a year. 

Then there’s the award-winning 5G Port of the Future project. Set up as a pilot of 5G, VR/AR, and AI use cases at Italy’s Port of Livorno. This pilot project brings huge potential for reduced costs and greater efficiency. 5G technology has already enabled real-time optimization of the port’s cargo handling process, and to another hot topic of the day – the reduction of Co2 emissions by 8.2percent

When it comes to mining, we’ve teamed up with Russian telecom provider MTS to deliver a dedicated private network to the EVRAZ’s Sheregeshskaya mine as they move towards their first stage of digital transformation. For some time, industry safety, equipment efficiency, and low production have been of great concern. Ericsson and MTS are working fast to deploy a commercial LTE/5G-ready private network to address these issues. Built on the Ericsson Dedicated Networks solution, once fully implemented, this solution will provide the platform to deliver the communications needs required to dispatch and address emergencies more efficiently. It will also provide autonomous control of much of the equipment to take the place of what is currently being operated by humans like autonomous vehicles used for haulage, which typically accounts for roughly 30% of a mine’s costs.

We really need to get the word out on these types of success stories that will create a domino effect to inspire other industries to do the same.

On what the future holds for drones

In the case of drones – we should be seeing future advancements with government and other industries. As you know, there are many government regulations that need to be addressed and adhered to, and rightfully so, to ensure safety and security to the public before drones are allowed to roam freely. That said, we are so very excited to see the advancements once drones are set free with the added power of 5G.

I encourage the readers of this interview, to explore some of our latest reports that dig deeper into the various use cases, including those for drones in industry, achievable through cellular connectivity for Connected Ports and Connected Mining. We also invite you to check out our latest announcement around Private 5G and the value it brings to business operations as well as a look into the Ericsson Enterprise drone application platform – a single platform that can customise and build new use cases in weeks not months, reducing overall solution and integration costs in the process.

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