At Skyward and Verizon, we want to make sure our customers can achieve drone ROI with the technology that’s available today. We also want to make sure we innovate with the future in mind. That’s why we’re working hard to connect drones to cellular networks.

Why do we think this aerial connectivity is so important? Because cellular connections will enable the next step in the most advanced drone use cases of today, and open the door to what’s possible tomorrow.

We know that 5G will help transform many aspects of society, and we think that drones will be one of the first tools to showcase its full potential. That’s good news! But here’s some even better news: we don’t need to wait for 5G to connect drones to the network. Connecting drones to 4G LTE can dramatically increase the value they provide today.

So, let’s take a look at the state of connectivity in the skies today with a view toward tomorrow’s advances.

4G LTE for Drones

Telecommunications companies like Verizon have invested years of effort and billions of dollars building coast-to-coast 4G LTE networks that connect the wireless devices we use every day. These networks bring a high level of reliability and trust. Millions of businesses and consumers have thoroughly stress-tested these networks over the years. We know we can rely on them to help us communicate, navigate, and live our lives.

Connected drones are able to tap into this same network — with its high reliability and breadth of coverage — to give a pilot command and control capabilities that stretch across nearly the entire country. While today’s drone ground control stations can stay connected to their drones for a couple of miles if the conditions permit, cellular networks have virtually unlimited connection potential. Connect a drone to an LTE network and the limit on how far it can operate will be based on the drone’s endurance, not its controller’s direct connection.

But how well does 4G LTE perform hundreds of feet up in the sky?

Cellular in the Air

Whether in phones, cars, or commercial robots, up until now most practical uses for cellular connectivity have been ground-based, and the networks that support these devices have been optimized for terrestrial use.

One of the things that makes drones unique is that they bring the internet of things (IoT) into the air. But doing this means we have to ask new questions. For example, because cell sites are typically optimized for ground use, is there enough signal in the sky? With so much free space and so few obstacles in the air, is interference an issue?

Skyward and Verizon’s Network team have conducted extensive testing to characterize how drones can operate on these networks. We have captured and analyzed data concerning how drones connect to the Verizon wireless network across multiple geographies. This has been done using different types of drones, and at different ranges, including beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). These flights had the primary goal of characterizing how the cellular network propagates at the altitudes drones fly for the purpose of command and control. 

During these flights we looked at the performance of the cellular link’s strength, coverage, and reliability. We also ensured the drone is operating on the network in a way which does not degrade the quality of the network experience for other users, or for the drone itself. 

These studies proved to us that the drone sees more cell towers when up in the air because there are longer lines of sight with fewer obstructions, such as buildings and trees, in the way. Therefore, drones have better signal coverage than ground-based devices. 

Verizon’s wireless 4G LTE network can deliver services to airborne users for the purpose of command and control of a drone, streaming video, and other data transfer in low altitude airspace. To serve this emerging market, Verizon has created Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) – a connectivity plan for connected drones and other aircraft operating in the National Airspace System that is available today.

Ready Today. Ready for Tomorrow.

Ultimately, as we talk about connecting drones over 4G LTE networks, we’re really looking forward to the missions that connectivity will enable. While connectivity won’t make sense for all drone users — individual consumers and drone hobbyists may not have much use for it — enterprises stand to reap the benefits from connected drone fleets on a large scale. The potential for increased productivity and ROI is enormous.

Drone connectivity over 4G LTE cellular networks can enable myriad complex operations, such as:

  • Flights beyond visual line of sight
  • Remote fleet deployments
  • Artificial intelligence & fully automated flights

You can read more about each of these use cases in this article from my colleague.

Want to learn more about drone connectivity and the ways it will change the industry? Download Skyward’s guide, The Near Future of Connected Drones.

Skyward The Near Future Of Connected Drones eBook