At Skyward and Verizon, we’re working to connect drones over 4G LTE and 5G cellular networks — the same kinds of networks your phone uses. When we think about connecting drones to these networks, we’re really talking about preparing for the processes and tasks enterprises will be able to accomplish. Most current drone use cases can be streamlined and supercharged with cellular connectivity.

While not every use case will require cellular connectivity, corporate enterprises could see significant return on investment when they launch successful, scalable, connected drone fleets. For enterprises, drone connectivity may enable complex operations like:

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

Let’s take a look at these three types of operations.

Drone flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)

The biggest opportunities for commercial drone operations involve flight beyond visual line of sight, or BVLOS. These operations have a huge potential impact on a drone program’s return on investment and are a major reason why drone-provided services are poised to become a multi-billion-dollar market.

While the technology to control drones beyond the sight of the pilot already exists, current regulations in the United States make it difficult to get permission to do so. This is largely safety driven — in the view of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), drones are aircraft which operate in the same National Airspace System as military, commercial, and general aviation aircraft.

Under Part 107, the FAA rule for operating commercial drones in the U.S., it’s the drone pilot’s responsibility to ensure they are not interfering with crewed aircraft. Currently, the FAA holds that the drone pilot can only manually see and avoid other air traffic if they can physically see the drone they’re flying. If an operation falls beyond the limits of standard Part 107 operations, drone operators may seek waivers through the FAA DroneZone or similar methods. However, these approvals require a comprehensive safety case which may be challenging to obtain.

While the FAA has approved a limited number of BVLOS waiver applications in the past, Skyward is working with the FAA and other standards bodies to clear a path for BVLOS waiver applications that include cellular communications to be approved in the future. This would allow drone operators and organizations to gain approval from the FAA to fly BVLOS using cellular connectivity at scale.

Why do cellular connected BVLOS drone flights matter?

Why is the commercial drone industry so excited about flying drones BVLOS? Why does this make such a big difference?

Flights BVLOS open the door to a whole new world of drone operations. Today, drone inspections for infrastructure covering large areas, such as railroads, electrical transmission lines, or pipelines have to be broken up into short segments, with the pilot relocating or handing off control to another pilot every few miles. This limitation is keeping large enterprises from fully realizing the efficiencies and scale drones can provide.

Contrast that to a connected drone’s ability to operate safely beyond visual line of sight, and we should almost immediately unlock the drone’s ability to inspect that same infrastructure in a way that is only limited by its flight endurance.

Regulated spectrum like cellular is ideally suited for the drone communications link in BVLOS operations because cellular providers like Verizon are already required to have their networks managed, licensed, and maintained for high reliability.

Making BVLOS flights a reality will enable improved time efficiencies, worker safety, and more frequent inspections for better data collection. And with the drone already connected to the network, the data can be sent directly to decision makers for immediate review. That means crews can get results rapidly and perform maintenance on the spot — no need to return to the office for data processing just to redeploy another day to fix the problem.

While regulatory bodies are still developing the laws and regulations that will allow these activities to safely become an everyday reality, Skyward and Verizon have been hard at work ensuring the technology will be ready once the regulations are in place. By characterizing 4G LTE in low-altitude airspace we have been able to define and optimize the performance of these networks for airborne operations. Plus, Skyward has already been conducting test BVLOS operations to prove out the necessary use cases and technologies.

Remote fleet deployments of connected drones

Let’s take it a step further. Instead of dispatching a crew to the site of a remote electrical transmission line, what if the drone was already located onsite? A pilot in the office could send a command over the network to launch the drone from its station. The drone would take off and begin to fly along the line. The pilot could control the drone and inspect any necessary assets without leaving the office. Upon completion of the mission, the pilot could return the drone to its station, where it would recharge and stand ready for its next mission.

Connecting drones to the network may enable remote fleet deployments of this kind. Some drone-in-a-box solutions are already commercially available. This represents huge time savings for crews, with the potential to completely eliminate some field deployments while still collecting detailed data. And when repair crews do need to deploy, they’re armed with the data ahead of time, streamlining operations.

Artificial intelligence on drones and highly automated operations

The next logical step in the evolution of drone operations is a whole fleet of remotely deployed drones. With base stations in key locations, a drone is ready to deploy at a moment’s notice anywhere in your service area. These drones are programmed to automatically fly routes on a schedule with little to no direct oversight needed. They collect data and transmit it back to the office, providing a constant flow of data for frequent assessment.

Today, regulations require a drone pilot to operate only one drone at a time. But in the near future, a single pilot — or even a computer — could control dozens of drones. This “one-to-many” control will be a huge competitive advantage. Regularly-collected data can be easily tracked over time for trend analysis, improving analytics and insight.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a key role in full drone automation, enabling drones to map, track, and analyze data in near real time. Drones will evolve from just a flying sensor into an aerial intelligence platform that can identify structural defects in infrastructure, assess storm damage, and find people in search & rescue scenarios without a human at the controls. While limited onboard artificial intelligence is already available today, technologies like multi-access edge computing (MEC) will bring advanced AI capabilities to drones during flight, producing actionable results in essentially real time. This means drones can rapidly provide intelligent insights that can save lives — and millions of dollars.

The near future of 4G LTE and 5G connected drones

Skyward and Verizon are excited to see how the industry will put connected drones to work. While we believe drones will first be connected to 4G LTE networks, we’re even more excited about how 5G networks could power tomorrow’s drone operations. Learn more by downloading Skyward’s guide, The Near Future of Connected Drones.

Skyward The Near Future Of Connected Drones eBook