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5G - A Game Changer for Autonomous Drones

5G - A Game Changer for Autonomous Drones

One of my most impactful memories during my 20 year career at Qualcomm was being one of the first 30 people to work on 3G data. We were developing the CDMA2000 Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) protocol for “high-speed” wireless transmission of data. These EV-DO terminals helped launch 3G enabling data everywhere, which led to 4G/LTE mobile broadband. Qualcomm, in addition to being a leader in the smartphone SoC industry, is known as the driving force behind the evolution of cellular networks, and it’s been an honor to aid with and witness the cellular transition from 3G, 4G/LTE, to now, 5G first hand. 

My last 5 years at Qualcomm was leading robotics R&D engineering, where we proved that Snapdragon could power more than just mobile phones. One of the wildest realizations of this goal was when my project, the Snapdragon Flight, an autonomous UAS autopilot, made its way onto NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter, the first drone to fly on Mars. At ModalAI, we use the same Snapdragon technology to power our VOXL family line of autonomous autopilots for drones. 

5G is Here

5G, launched in 2019, is the 5th generation mobile network and championed by Qualcomm. It elevates the 4G/LTE standard by producing high speeds at lower latency and is designed for forward compatibility, meaning that its enhanced mobile broadband can support future services and industries unknown to us today. 

5G devices are currently being launched at a rapid rate, and almost every mobile manufacturer has a 5G compatible device available for sale. A 5G device is nothing without a strong 5G network to run on, and in 2020, we saw popular carriers promoting their superior 5G wireless networks to the public. 5G speed on mobile devices means that even in congested areas such as stadiums, concerts, and amusement parks, people can surf the web, make calls, or post photos to social media with no lag. 

5G impacts several other industries as more devices populate in the internet of things (IoT) ecosystem; think cars, cameras, and wearables. Similar to how we’ve seen the evolution of 4G/LTE to 5G positively affect mobile phones, the same advancement will also be pivotal to accelerating the mass adoption of autonomous drones. Drones need robust connectivity for flying both longer range use cases and in more congested radio frequency (RF) environments.  

5G Will Change the Way We Use Drones

5G is a game changer for autonomous drones. When flying, drones typically use less reliable point to point links, which could lose signal at any time during flight. When operating on a 5G network, a drone benefits from the ultra-high reliability and low-latency connectivity. This means a drone can receive and act on commands sent from the ground control system or pilot quickly. 5G helps to reduce the time spent between sending, receiving, and acting upon commands, therefore reducing the margin of error that could happen during flight. This low-latency is especially useful in navigation scenarios, where drones fly in GPS-denied environments or Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). In this use case, drones can’t use GPS, and rely on visual inertial odometry (VIO) to navigate in areas where the pilot’s view is obscured. 5G will ensure that the drone’s camera feed seamlessly updates on the pilot’s ground control system in real time, sending the pilot an accurate view of where the drone is.

Other use cases that will benefit from 5G include aerial inspection, film and entertainment, mapping, delivery, mission critical, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). 5G enabled delivery drones can reliably deliver medical equipment like COVID tests to affected communities safely by limiting human to human contact, reducing the spread of infections. Search and rescue drones can report data and area visuals in real time at little to no latency, increasing the speed and efficiency of search and rescue missions. Overall, the reliability and low latency of 5G will enhance these novel use cases and increase the adoption of autonomous drones.

5G Will Accelerate the Drone Industry

As we usher in a new 5G era for the drone industry, we can expect an acceleration of autonomy and rapid adoption of drones. Major players like e-commerce giants, Uber Eats, Amazon, and UPS, have already invested heavily in their own fleet of autonomous drones. Network carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have also promoted their own private 5G networks, and have even tested for drone compatibility. These large investments in drones and 5G signal the massive growth that the drone industry should expect in the next couple of years. 

Flying with a 5G Drone

Similar to mobile devices, if you want your drone to operate on a 5G network, you need to get a new one that supports 5G or retrofit your current one. New 5G drones must be equipped with a 5G-compatible modem. Having a capable computing platform on board enables the drone to achieve the faster, low-latency, on-board computing that is associated with 5G, such as 3 Gbps upload and 7.5 Gbps download speeds. You’ll need a 5G modem compatible with your wireless carrier, and then an appropriately configured SIM card to make the data connection.

If you want to retrofit your old drone, you need a 5G add-on board that hosts a 5G modem that is backwards compatible with your current drone setup. Do note that if you retrofit your old drone with a 5G modem, you may not be able to reap all the benefits of flying over a 5G network, due to the limitations of the old, not 5G-compatible, SoC.

Currently, there aren’t any out of the box 5G drone solutions on the market, but with the progress that the drone industry and 5G network is making, we are sure to see fully built 5G solutions soon. We’re always working on something new, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and visit our radios page for any updates on new connectivity options. 

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