Last week I got to participate in my first Skyward webinar: Drones, Connectivity, and Operations of the Future. We focused mainly on the energy and utilities industry, covering a wide variety of topics around drones:
- How energy and utilities companies are using drones today
- Capabilities of drones connected to the wireless network
- Skyward’s research and development of airborne cellular technologies
- An update on current drone regulations
The Skyward team was joined by Corey Hitchcock, Southern Company’s Chief UAS Pilot. Corey shared about some of the ways Southern Company is using Skyward to help them manage a highly innovative drone program.
Southern Company’s groundbreaking drone use cases
At the time of the webinar, Southern Company had 191 aircraft and 131 pilots across their program — making it a huge, enterprise-scale operation. Corey oversees the program as it deploys drones for everyday applications such as:
- Vertical infrastructure inspections, such as transmission line inspections and distribution reliability patrols
- 3D mapping using LiDAR and photogrammetry
- Pulling rope for transmission lines across obstacles such as valleys or bodies of water
One of the fastest-growing use cases, according to Corey, is operating drones inside the radiological control area of nuclear plants. A drone can safely access radioactive areas to provide real-time data and visual inspections. In the event that a team does have to enter and make repairs, they can identify hazards before going in, minimizing the total time spent in a radioactive area.
Southern Company is continuing to scale their program. They’re finding great value as drones replace humans for everyday tasks that are dirty, dull, or dangerous.
Southern Company partners with Skyward for situational awareness
Recently, Southern Company performed a full-scale test of a custom situational awareness system built on Skyward’s InFlight mobile app. Southern Company flew drones and helicopters at the same time while the system displayed the live location of all the aircraft in the sky. This enabled pilots, managers, and other personnel to run a coordinated mission and oversee the operation — even from miles away. Our partnership resulted in a great solution to an enterprise-grade problem.
If you want to learn more about Southern Company’s drone program, including samples of recently completed projects, check out the recording of the webinar.
Foundations of cellular-connected skies
I was also excited to share about Skyward’s Aviation Network Technology team and what we’ve been working on: connecting drones to Verizon’s wireless network and making sure the ecosystem is ready to support the drone operations of the future.
Verizon has been testing and flying drones over 4G LTE since 2016. As a Verizon company, Skyward continues to pave the way by connecting aircraft to Verizon’s networks and partnering with the FAA and the industry to bring together the necessary technologies and regulations.
Because 4G LTE is so well-established and widespread, we believe we’ll see drones initially connecting to 4G networks on a wide scale. Then, as 5G networks continue to roll out and become more widespread, drones will begin to tap into the benefits of these incredible networks, including:
- Data speeds up to 20 times faster than today’s networks
- Lower latency
- Rapid edge computing, much faster than sending data all the way to the cloud
- Support for far more connected devices
Cellular in the air
Drones in the air connect to cellular networks differently than our cell phones. Due to a variety of factors, including fewer obstacles in the way, drones can see many more towers in the air than a phone on the ground does. And while phones primarily consume data from the network, drones are data generators, meaning they primarily send data to the network.
Skyward’s Aviation Network Technology team is performing R&D with our Verizon colleagues to optimize the way drones connect to the network — and to add extra security to protect data. In short, we’re working to achieve aviation-grade connectivity for our drone operators. As experts in the whole communications chain, from towers and backhaul networks to the connected devices themselves, we’re the experts that can help you implement and manage connected aerial technology.
The goal: long distance and autonomous flights
Our vision is to establish an ecosystem where drone operators can fly farther. That’s when energy and utilities companies will be able to do far more with drones. Instead of a 20 minute flight within a pilot’s line of sight to inspect power lines, we want drones to be able to fly as far as the battery permits, enabling operators to accomplish much more in fewer flights.
As a result, we should see use cases from connected drones such as:
- Fully autonomous flights
- Universal traffic management for drones, helicopters, and planes
- Near real-time telemetry for situational awareness
- Live, high-quality media broadcasts
- Remote command and control for long-distance drone operations
We also expect to see the degrees of autonomy in drone operations go up significantly. Right now, drones have basic autonomy such as flying along a route or returning to home when signal is lost. With connectivity and all the advances it brings, we expect to see fleets of drones deployed for a mission at the push of a button — or even on a schedule without one-to-one supervision. It’s exciting to be building that kind of future.