Why the Drone Network of Tomorrow is Farther Away than You Think

drone network

Airspace integration and management solutions for drones continue to garner new investment, but most options are based on fairytale scenarios and raise more questions than answers.

I’ve been doing research on the commercial drone industry since early 2012, and it never ceases to amaze me how much hype there is.  A week doesn’t go by where I find a new fantasy forecast or see an announcement on how this or that drone networking solution is “game changing.”

How real are those claims that drones will one day be filling our skies and delivering packages? Where and when will we see massive industry growth and is that growth dependent on the existence of a drone network?  In this post, I’ll go over a few misconceptions, discuss the harsh reality, and offer two lessons learned that I hope will help make the conversation a bit more rational.

The hype

Question: How much spin is out there on drone networks?  Answer: A lot.

Take this piece, for example: In The Drone Network of Tomorrow (It’s Closer Than You Think). The author wants you to believe that the drone network of tomorrow is a few hurdles away.  In this futuristic world, users will remotely dispatch multiple drones right from their offices. They’ll specify the flight path, and the drones will fly there autonomously and collect data. In this world, there will be drones-for-hire stationed at key locations and you will just click on button to summon them at your command. It will be “the Internet of drones” and it will be accomplished via the LTE network, the same network to which every smartphone is connected today.

Investors buy it.

Read The Big Money Continues to Bet on Drones, which discusses Verizon’s recent acquisition of Skyward. Read Airmap’s own take on their announcement of $26 million in Series B funding from Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Yuneec, and Sony, with Microsoft leading the round.

The press buys it.

Read this recent article in Recode. It says:

Drones are, after all, flying computers that connect to the internet—connectivity on a drone is often used to share flight information with other drones, report to air traffic control or send aerial imaging back in real time to the operator.

I bought it, too.

In December 2014, I wrote Why Drones Are the Future of the Internet of Things.  

But since that time I’ve done a lot a research to find evidence supporting industry claims, and the truth is, at every turn I’ve come up empty handed and found many misconceptions.

The misconceptions  

Many in the industry have worked together to move forward the various Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) projects. UTM refers to efforts to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project and GUTMA. Those initiatives are a collaboration between government regulators and private industry partners. At the center of those initiatives is the enablement of routine beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS–sometimes just BLOS) operations for commercial drones. Good. We need that. To see some of that work, download the latest presentations from the 2016 UTM Conference here.

While the NASA-FAA UTM initiative may have started out with some simple solutions, it’s now blossomed into an expensive “one-size-fits-all” behemoth that is proposing ways to control flight scenarios that don’t need them—those flights where no data exists showing any risk those operations pose to the NAS or nonparticipants on the ground. That hasn’t stopped UTM participants, along with the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), though, from suggesting those controls.

I think it’s a good idea that’s gone bad. I am not alone in perceiving that many UTM and DAC participants think their charter is to integrate the Internet and the cellular network into the National Airspace System (NAS). The leader of GUTMA thinks his organization can do for drones what ICANN does for the Internet. Face palm.

Now, the snowball effect is these companies (and investors) believe drones are Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices that are going to magically multiply like rabbits once we have a drone network. Truth is, drones aren’t IoT devices; they’re data-gathering aircraft.  Yes, they collect data that looks a lot like the data from an IoT device in motion (see my presentation on that here), but equating them with IoT devices assumes way too much—like the need for constant connectivity to the Internet, for one. Here’s a clue: Drones from DJI, the dominant market share leader, don’t have it, nor do 99.9% of drones that operate in the NAS today.

The harsh reality

So, to put it bluntly, the vision of tens of millions of drones flying in the NAS alongside manned aircraft is overstated. Visionaries like to point to the 100,000 or so flights that happen today as the bellwether indicator of what’s to come. They point to the headlines that say package delivery drones will fill the skies as reality. But drone delivery has been seriously debunked, and the bellwether argument is a non-sequitur. The vast majority of the flights happening today happen in uncontrolled Class G airspace, happen around 200-300 feet above ground level, happen without any automated traffic control interaction, and happen without incident.

Also, our research says the growth of drone use by industries will be much more measured than the hyped growth figures that visionaries tout, and the bulk of operations will happen mostly as they do today within visual line of sight (LOS).  We don’t see huge volumes for BVLOS operations happening for many, many years—if at all. There are other factors hindering drone adoption beside regulations and air traffic control.  There are other reasons why companies will stick with incumbent technology like satellites and manned aircraft.  We have written much about hype in the drone industry, and if that’s new to you, then you can start your research with this SlideShare.

Two lessons to take to heart

Regulators and experienced military users know flying drones safely and securely in BVLOS operations is not easy. Because of its complexity, we now have a new term in aviation: Performance Based Navigation (PBN). PBN describes requirements for separating aircraft and avoiding collision. PBN is a combination of systems both on and off of the aircraft that affect its ability to navigate. And that takes us to our first lesson.

Lesson 1: Buried in the recent announcement of regular BVLOS flights of Aeryon SkyRangers at the Foremost UAS Range in Alberta was the fact that Ventus Geospatial had to meet very stringent criteria from Transport Canada (Canada’s civil aviation authority). The requirements prescribe a host PBN including:

  • Sense-and-avoid system to provide traffic separation and a means for collision avoidance.  That system will have to detect the traffic in time to process the sensor information, determine if a conflict exists, and execute a maneuver according to the right-of-way rules.  That system must possess the capability to detect both cooperative aircraft (aircraft with a means of electronic conspicuity (transponder, TCAS, ADS-B, etc.)) and non-cooperative aircraft.
  • Some ground-based radar systems may be utilized to provide a means of meeting sense and avoid requirements.
  • Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) / Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) that employs a collision avoidance system with reactive logic, so that any maneuver resulting from a perceived threat from another aircraft will not reduce the effectiveness of a TCAS/ACAS resolution advisory maneuver from that other aircraft.
  • Automated Dependent Surveillance Broadcast System (ADS-B), with the caveat that ADS-B does not have the ability to detect non-cooperative aircraft, it is not an approved strategy, in and of itself, for mitigating the UAV sense and avoid requirements.
  • Use of multilateration, which is a type of secondary surveillance system that is based on the use of conventional transponders and stationary receivers that provide an aircraft’s position using triangulation principles.
  • Separation and Collision Avoidance Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) addressing:
    • Take-off/launch and landing/recovery procedures;
    • En-route and terminal procedures;
    • Loss of control data link; and
    • Abort procedures following critical system failure.

I could go on, but you get the point. There’s no uber-integrated automation system for PBN and there won’t be for a long time.

Lesson 2: Major General James Poss writes about his experiences with the early days of managing military drone systems in It’s the Data Link, Stupid. He says:

“A commercial drone ground relay LOS network would have advantages and disadvantages compared to the Air Force system. Advantages are that existing cell phone tower networks are ideally positioned to provide the backbone for ground relay LOS networks for commercial drones. Cell phone companies have already leased the land, dealt with all the FCC regulatory restrictions and, most importantly, obtained the spectrum that could be used for BLOS drone link operations. They also have world class cyber defense centers.  The disadvantage is that today’s providers struggle to get enough bandwidth for existing cell phone coverage as it is, their cell tower antennas point down to cover ground users, vice up to cover drones, and their 4G link reliability won’t be high enough to satisfy FAA BLOS requirements. For something as critical as BLOS drone control, the FAA won’t tolerate ‘dropped calls’.  It’s that reliability thing, again.”

He goes on to say:

“Problems would remain even with this type of system. Although low bandwidth directional drone links using commercially available spectrum wouldn’t use scarce 4G service spectrum, they would take up physical space on already overcrowded cellphone towers. Directional antennas are expensive and must be positioned carefully to avoid radio frequency interference.”

And I’m afraid 5G (the next-generation of mobile networks beyond the 4G LTE mobile networks of today) isn’t a silver bullet. Right now, forecasters say 5G adoption will be slow and most of that extra bandwidth will be used by consumers for mobile video viewing.

But General Poss raises great points. Why would anyone invest in these systems if they’re riskier than either military drones or manned aircraft, particularly when the regulatory environment is unclear?  Just how would the FAA regulate a drone network? If the control portion of the network would be an aviation safety critical system, would the FAA even have the authority to regulate it when it’s the Federal Communication Commission’s charter to regulate cellular communications? All I can tell you is, Buckle up and stay tuned in. It’s going to be long bumpy ride.