By André Méchaly, VP Marketing and Communications, Alcatel-Lucent West & South Europe
Distance record for a drone piloted using a smartphone 4G/LTE – innovative applications for civil drones
Since the beginning of time, man has never stopped dreaming of being able to fly like a bird. After realizing this was impossible, he took to creating ever-more outlandish inventions to make his dream come true.
Today, in the 21st century, men and women are still trying to fulfill this dream and improve on the inventions of their ancestors. At a time when man has managed to glide using increasingly bizarre contraptions and when planes can transport people from one end of the planet to the other, I am interested in their distant cousin, the drone. The drone was initially used for civil and military applications, but fewer consumer versions – “toys for adults” – could be found on the market.
Parrot, the French company famed for its automotive and multimedia products, launched into action with its AR.Drone in 2010. The concept was simple: a drone quadricopter equipped with two cameras and controlled using Wi-Fi from your smartphone. Over 250,000 models of this toy have been sold worldwide. It’s a great toy and is easy to pilot, albeit within a certain range. In fact, Wi-Fi has a limited range (less than 100 meters), and depending on the environment, can stop working.
All it took was the Alcatel-Lucent engineers, the prototypers of the Bell Labs Acceleration Platform and the engineers from Parrot to get together to discuss a proof of concept for piloting an AR.Drone using 4G/LTE.
Our goal? To be able to fly further than the limited Wi-Fi range of 100 meters and to enjoy the high speeds of the 4G/LTE network for transmitting HD video streams from the AR.Drone to your smartphone. Large distances can mean that the pilot may lose sight of the drone. If this happens, the live video link on the smartphone’s screen will help the pilot to guide the AR.Drone back home. It’s easy to understand why the 4G/LTE network is used – its excellent latency means the response time of the drone is practically immediate.
In fact, this is what started this crazy idea. We created an ‘LTE bubble’ – an ad hoc network with a base station like the one used in 4G/LTE commercial networks and an ultra compact virtualized core network (a product of our research at Bell Labs). We equipped the Parrot AR.Drone with a standard 4G USB key and used a commercial 4G smartphone. After testing it in the laboratories of Bell Labs at Alcatel-Lucent, the following step was to pilot the AR.Drone outside.
We just had to find the right place. We chose a rural environment, in the middle of a cornfield. A 1000-meter long path was marked out for the occasion. Success! The result was a world premiere in piloting a civil drone using a 4G/LTE network over a distance of 1 km. The test was carried out by a professional pilot and within a secure parameter.
Besides having a lot of fun, what did we learn from this experiment?
- 4G/LTE technology delivers an unmatched performance which will not just benefit users, but also any device that uses a 4G/LTE network like the AR.Drone. The significantly higher upstream and downstream speeds allow you to record and stream HD quality videos.
- The availability of LTE in low-frequency band (such as 800 MHz in France) will provide the country with high-speed networks. Unlike 3G, which was only available in urban areas at the beginning, 4G/LTE will be more widely available across the country.
- Low latency will open the door to more interactive applications such as games, HD video conferencing, Real Time streaming, and more applications than we can ever imagine.
So what practical applications are available with a drone using 4G/LTE? We offer a flying camera with a high-speed network, which is very affordable. It is possible to buy professional drones, but they are much more expensive. There is now a market for lighter and more affordable drones. Applications for this type of drone are undoubtedly limitless. Let’s look at some examples:
- Fire fighters could monitor fires as they break out
- Farmers could keep an eye on crops or cattle
- Meetings or amateur sporting events could be broadcast
- Journalists could use them for investigation
- Security services could use them for reconnaissance
This technical potential shows that technology like 4G/LTE has limitless applications which brings us closer to the Internet of Things. When used for an innovative object like the AR.Drone from Parrot, this technology gives you more than just games in terms of new uses. These new uses will also be possible thanks to this drone and will create opportunities for developers to create applications for it. This is a real step forward in terms of open innovation, a philosophy which is deeply rooted in the foundations of a company like Alcatel-Lucent. Together we will invent the new applications of tomorrow. The sky’s the limit!