For many years unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or, as they’re more commonly known, drones, were an exclusive technology to governments and military outfits. But today, commercial and domestic drone use is booming.
This trend has been driven by advancements in underlying drone technologies (such as sensors, cameras, GPS, and batteries), a positive regulatory environment and investor enthusiasm. These factors, together with ever-reducing price tags – perhaps the most crucial of the lot – have combined to make drones an increasingly attractive solution to a diverse range of business problems, and a more popular product in the consumer market.
With both consumers and businesses now looking to explore drone use, but for very different reasons, telco operators find themselves uniquely positioned to aid in this exploration, by having much of the required network infrastructure to do so already in place. This, together with existing expertise in connectivity, cloud and big data, means that telcos have the foundations to play a pivotal role in the provision and regulation of drones in the near future.
Let’s take a look at the two major roles telcos, like Vodafone, can play in the drone aerospace.
Drone applications can enable various types of companies to transform their operations and gain efficiency, in terms of costs and time, by capturing and analysing datasets that improve decision-making. But for the vast majority of organisations looking to realise drone-powered benefits, the creation of an in-house drone service is ultimately a highly questionable investment to make – unless the bang for your buck can be guaranteed. Most organisations will therefore seek specialist providers of Drones as a Service (DaaS).
Drone procurement – the provision of the physical device (drone), alongside the required information systems, sensors, and data-collecting capabilities – is one such form of DaaS. For oil rig operators, for example, who must periodically assess the conditions of platforms at sea, or for outdoor event organisers, who require drones to monitor crowd behaviour, drone procurement is essential to operations.
With telcos requiring in-house drone services for their own needs, providing drone procurement solutions to customers is a practical extension of their current services. And by providing their own skilled pilots with the necessary licenses and certifications, the telco drone procurement service would be a complete out-of-the-box solution.
However, for a growing number of organisations, the main use of drones is no longer for maintenance and surveillance purposes, rather it is in data. Drone technology is providing new ways of gathering data through a range of sensors and cameras, which organisations can then transform into actionable insights. In the past we have seen this data stored on the drone itself for later download, however, with the technology now available to do so, there is a growing demand to make it available in real-time.
With the vast majority of organisations without the capacity – in terms of both technology and staff – to turn their data into something valuable, telcos can provide data processing solutions as an additional aspect to DaaS. By already possessing the mature cloud infrastructure and network capacity suitable for managing, storing, and archiving high volumes of data, telco operators have the foundations in place to meet the need for data live-streaming. Plus, with their data analytics teams already well established, telcos can build on these existing skills and systems to analyse drone-collected data to provide customers with unique insights.
With the commercial and domestic use of drones now taking off, government bodies and regulators are watching the situation unfold closely. The key task for regulators is to find a healthy balance between making sure the future capabilities of drones are realised, and ensuring public safety and privacy is unaffected.
As drones are, relatively speaking, a very new technology – and one without any real predecessors – the issue for governments is that there is no existing legal framework to work by as they enforce laws for drone-users. This, combined with the fact that drones are, by their nature, a very difficult technology to regulate, has left governments struggling to control how they are used.
Drone Traffic Control Centres (DTCC) present a feasible solution to regulatory issues. Currently at concept stage, these are bases committed to upholding drone law and safety through the monitoring and tracking of devices. In collaboration with regulatory bodies, telcos are able to supply and manage the technical services required for a DTCC to operate, such as data storage, connectivity, cybersecurity and real-time air traffic information.
Drone proximity to restricted areas such as airports and prisons, the use of unregistered drones, these are issues that can both be far better managed with drone traffic control. For example, ‘geo-fencing’ can be put in place to restrict drone access to certain areas, and report on activity that doesn’t abide with the laws that concern altitude, flight times or the privacy of third parties.
Further still, drone regulation would be a much smaller task if consumer drones were required to insert and register a SIM card, similar to their use in the mobile market. In addition to helping drones avoid no-go areas, a mobile network could also be used to enable drone to drone communication, which would prevent mid-air collisions and the human-safety concerns that come with their threat.Going into tomorrow with a healthy balance
Drones are making a real impact on a number of industries, and quietly transforming the enterprise as we know it. However, the current rapid rate of adoption will inevitably bring with it technical, social and legal challenges.
Telecoms operators are very well placed to offer services and solutions that will address the challenges that come with drones and enable the benefits of the technology to be realised safely and securely, while also helping businesses to diversify and explore new revenue streams.
Gartner has positioned Vodafone as a "Leader" in its Magic Quadrant for Managed M2M Services, Worldwide report 2017, for the fourth consecutive year