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The Role Of Drones In Building Safer Asian Cities In A Post-COVID World
July 1, 2021 Blog


By Stuart Hendry, Head of Enterprise for Asia Pacific and Japan, Nokia

Today, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more commonly known as drones, have become an integral technology within the operations of various industries and organisations. Yet, while they have long been mostly used for military applications, their implementation for various consumer, commercial and civil applications is relatively recent.

More drones are being proliferated for myriad applications – translating to a growth rate of nearly 20 percent that, according to a report, will see the global UAV market surpass US$55 billion in 2027. As the market grows, there will be more opportunities for both drone operators and technology partners – especially as more businesses are opting for remote monitoring and automation for swifter and more efficient operations.

Still, there remains an opportunity to take the use of drones to the next level. Doing so will not only help socio-economic actors reliably stimulate recovery from the current challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also stimulate future growth prospects. This becomes possible by integrating UAVs with key technologies that will help define the next era of industry, such 5G and Big Data analytics.

Enabling drones to do more with reliable, unfettered connectivity

While there are manifold applications for drone technology today, the real value in UAVs has been especially evident in their ability to help address challenge brought about by periods of uncertainty. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, UAVs assisted in a variety of pandemic relief measures in both advanced and emerging markets. Despite their inherent value, however, such drone applications remain limited in scale.

One major challenge to raising the effective application of drones is connectivity. This is as the operational radius of drones have been typically limited to radio controller (RC) ranges – given that most UAVs operate in low-altitude airspaces. This means, despite fervent efforts, manufacturers could only develop proprietary radio control solutions to enhance the range by only a few kilometers. Even then, it must be done within the drones’ visual line of sight (VLOS).

On this front, improved connectivity that was fostered by 4G has been transformative in the way that organisations use drone technology. With greater unfettered and more reliable connectivity, drones have a greater capacity to execute more complex missions, in addition to streaming and uploading large data chunks and HD video to the cloud, as well as travel greater distances (including beyond the VLOS) better and more autonomously. With 5G, all of these can be enhanced.

5G – the catalyst for innovative drone applications

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the near horizon, 5G will be able to take drone applications to a level that was impossible with 4G LTE. With its ultra-fast speeds, ultra-reliable connectivity and ultra-low latency, 5G can be the next gamechanger for UAV technologies and their utility.

For instance, the inherent nature of 5G makes it possible to equip drones with LiDAR (light detection and ranging) capabilities, in addition to video and advanced sensory technology to improve their situational awareness. This is especially useful when applied to the key economic areas such as the supply chain – which includes manufacturing, warehousing, logistics and shipping operations that were disrupted by the pandemic – due to the sector’s highly complex navigational environments, especially for conventional premises that are not fully digitised.

5G-enhanced drones can also be transformative beyond purely business use cases. In fact, they hold tremendous potential for public safety efforts.

To illustrate, in Sendai, Japan, Nokia worked with municipal authorities to apply private wireless connected drones for tsunami evacuation alerts. The drones were outfitted with HD cameras, thermal cameras and speakers to conduct aerial monitoring and video streaming.

Nokia also supported efforts by a Philippine mobile operator and the Philippine Red Cross to use LTE-connected drones and a portable network in areas struck by disaster. This use case highlighted how a high-capacity mobile broadband network combined with drones and on-site computing power effectively supports Red Cross emergency operation. This as aerial insights and data analytics helped improve situational awareness and help the incident commander prioritise resources for people in distress.

It should be noted that while the drones in both aforementioned use cases were operated on LTE networks, they can be upgraded to 5G in the long term. This will help enhance efforts designed to support first responders facilitate disaster recovery and mitigation without risking human personnel managing the activities.

Securing the future of drone applications

Despite the transformative effects of UAVs for societies and economies, their future rests heavily on them being able to operate in a transparent and trusted regulatory environment that can assuage privacy and safety concerns. In the Asia-Pacific, regulatory alignment is being done via the Asia Pacific Regional Guidance for the Regulation and Safe Operation of Unmanned. Aircraft Systems within National Airspace – a regional document aimed at streamlining the aviation laws surrounding the operation of drones by individuals and organisations.

The need for drone technology regulation is especially important to ensure that they are operated within ethical boundaries. This is especially since the continued advancements and the proliferation of drones have concurrently raised threats of malicious attacks. For instance, cybersecurity experts were able to use a drone and a Wi-Fi dongle to exploit security limitations within a network linked to an electric vehicle.  Hence, it is imperative that security is addressed for both networks and drone applications.

However, security monitoring for and from drones and their related applications must be a 24/7 exercise. This can be enabled by 5G slicing and having the drones operate on a private wireless network.  To illustrate, it is relatively easy to eliminate attack vectors while on entirely private infrastructure, while end-to-end 5G slicing takes this to the next level; once operators are on their own 5G slice, the attack vectors are very much contained. A rigorous plan to counter such threats is required, but it is much easier to implement than dealing with several vectors simultaneously.

Soaring to a future of greater heights with drones

Given the spike in unmanned aerial operations that we have been witnessing in urban, rural and industrial spaces, we expect that the investments in UAVs and drone-related technologies will only continue to soar.

Amid the growth of this sector, challenges remain – especially in relation to network and coverage stability as the future of drones rests heavily on effective and resilient mission-critical networks, given that they are essential to robust and seamless drone connectivity. It is here where mobile operators and related technology solution providers can provide comprehensive automation cloud solutions comprising both private and secure mobile broadband, cloud connectivity and a variety of add-on applications – including drones. With 5G, all these services can be enhanced to empower drones to blaze new flightpaths in improving and safeguarding lives.