Many 5G-based technologies are set to soar this decade, and 5G drone technology is right up there with the best of them. Why will 5G drones fly so high, and what impact will these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have on our lives? Strap yourself in for a tour of the landscape.

What is 5G?

5G stands for the fifth-generation mobile network. It’s an upgrade to 3G and 4G, the previous generations of mobile networks. 

Drones and 5G

Drones and 5G are a winning combination. 5G technology has capabilities that will elevate drone technology to brand-new levels. Those capabilities include:

  • Better and more continuous connectivity 
  • Faster speeds
  • Lower latency (i.e. more rapid response times)
  • More generous bandwidth
  • Greater coverage range as rollout continues 
  • Improved reliability
  • A better user experience for a greater number of users, thanks to augmentation to enable it to become a more efficient technology

In practical terms for drone owners, this means that you’ll be able to take advantage of all of your drone’s modern features more easily. 5G will enable you to fly further, record and observe with less lag, utilise enhanced AR features, ensure better real-time streaming and much more. Let’s take a look at some of the other ways that 5G will enhance drones around the country. 

The latest news on drones

Drones already have a wide range of uses and applications throughout Australia. These include the delivery of vital medical supplies to isolated communities, the identification of feral pests on farmland, aerial investigations of crime scenes and much more.

Around the globe, drones are being used in numerous positive ways. They’re being deployed to monitor climate change and fight forest fires.

In short, when it comes to supporting, protecting and improving human life, drones are already helping us do things in clever and highly efficient ways.

Phone-operated drones

Many of the drones on the market today can be operated with a phone. The good news is that many 5G drones can and do work with a 4G phone. Manufacturers are still ensuring that 5G drones still work on 4G-compatible devices. So if you’re looking at picking up a new phone drone, you shouldn’t have any issues utilising it with your current device and plan. 

However, when you do upgrade your device, you’ll be able to experience your drone to its full potential. So if you’re looking at buying a phone operated drone for 5G or if you’ve already got your hands on one, you should consider upgrading your phone to a 5G model. You might also like to explore Vodafone’s 5G coverage in Australia. Vodafone’s 5G network is rolling out in selected areas of major Australian cities. As the 5G network continues to be rolled out, 5G phone drones will really start to flex their muscles.

When will 5G drone technology be available?

For drones to go on and reach their full potential, there are two main things that need to happen.

The first involves allowing drones to fly outside of what is known as the visual line of sight, when appropriate. At present, a drone can only fly as far as the person operating it can see. This is a legal limitation and sometimes a technological one. This obviously restricts a drone’s capacity to be useful in emergency situations. Whether it’s travelling to far-flung communities in Australia or reaching bushfires rapidly to relay information back to emergency services, drones need to be able to fly beyond the visual line of sight in certain situations. Legislation is evolving in this area.

The second thing preventing drones from fulfilling their promise is the coverage provided by current mobile networks. 5G is able to span a far greater range of uninterrupted coverage, as recently demonstrated in a world record-breaking video call. This will potentially allow safer command and control of drones when they’re out of the operator’s range of sight.

Why better connectivity is good for drones

When in flight, drones tend to use point to point links, which are not always reliable. The signal can easily get lost at any moment.

The 5G network changes things up with its reduced latency connectivity and reliability. When ground control or an earthbound pilot sends commands to a 5G drone, those commands can be received more rapidly. The drone, in turn, can respond to orders at a much quicker pace.

In essence, the 5G network speeds up the turnaround between issuing, receiving and acting on commands. This is crucial for accuracy and error reduction. In navigation scenarios, 5G could ensure that the drone’s camera feed is able to send seamless, real-time updates back to base, giving the pilot a very precise picture of the drone’s location.

Previous drone technology is comparatively clunky. It relies on drone-mounted sensors and cameras to capture data, which is subsequently uploaded from the drone’s hard drive once it lands.

How drones can use low latency connectivity

We’ve looked at why better connectivity is good for drones — now let’s look at some examples of how 5G drones can be used.

In farming, 5G drones can check on irrigation equipment, monitor livestock and gather data on crops. This allows farmers to make informed decisions in real-time. For instance, they could tell a tractor exactly where to use fertilisers or pesticides.

Ports are another sector where 5G drones would be highly useful. They could transmit high-definition video footage for video analytics, allowing the speedy identification of both objects and people. Appropriate actions could then be triggered in real-time. This could include photographing shipments, measuring goods and providing better security.

For search and rescue operations, drones powered by 5G can send back real-time data and area visuals, boosting the speed, scale and efficiency of missions. The potential for cost savings is significant.

Keeping track with 5G drones

Some of the other latest news on drones includes something called pinpoint positioning. Vodafone UK has been involved in successfully trialling new technology that uses 5G drones to remotely track vehicles, machinery and devices. 

Accuracy, so far, has been outstanding — within 10 cm of the object’s position, compared with 3 m of previous-generation technology. Greater precision is achieved by adjusting for atmospheric delays, the earth’s curvature and global satellite time differences.

Vodafone UK believes this ultra-accurate positioning technology will be fundamental to the safe rollout of future 5G services. It will pave the way to greater adoption of driverless vehicles on the road and at other sites such as airports, factories, ports, mines and other places where machinery is on the move.

When AI, drones and 5G come together

The future of 5G drones is all about working in concert with other transformative technologies. Recently, Qualcomm Technologies has lifted the lid on an exciting new product that combines AI and 5G capabilities. The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform is a ground-breaking drone platform. It’s AI-enabled and builds on the companies’ latest IoT innovations, which have already been used in unmanned flights.

The Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform will play an integral role in shaping the development of industrial, commercial and enterprise 5G drones. It will also spur the evolution of new applications across a broad range of sectors, from entertainment to defence, mapping and delivery services.

Drones that deliver 5G

Not only can drones benefit from 5G — in some instances, they may also be useful for helping provide new and temporary 5G coverage for a specific area. This is done by flying multiple drones autonomously to assist in spreading 5G signals. This could prove extremely useful in situations such as disaster zones, where teams on the ground often need wireless internet to provide effective disaster relief.

Drones that deliver 5G can also be used in places where large numbers of people try to use the same mobile network at the same time. The University of Glasgow has already carried out some trials on this area of drone technology. Researchers began by placing a number of network nodes at distances of 200 m. They then used a specifically adapted drone to successfully deliver a continuous 5G signal. In future trials, the researchers would like to land the drone on top of a high structure, thus eliminating the need for continuous flight. The drone could then fly back to base when the network wasn’t needed anymore.

In other experiments, drone technicians have explored ways in which drones can be used to increase 5G signal strength. Mapping this into AR (augmented reality) would help in determining the best location for the antenna so as to optimise the delivery of future signals.

T-Mobile drones

5G drones are also showing signs of shaking up the sports and entertainment sector. America’s 5G giant, T-Mobile, has teamed up with the biggest professional drone racing league on the planet, Drone Racing League (DRL).

Together, they are showcasing their 5G-powered drone. This T-Mobile racing drone is a global first, integrating a 5G module that can stream live video to the internet in real-time. Using T-Mobile’s 5G network, the T-Mobile drones are capable of delivering high-definition (HD), First Person View (FPV) video footage — in crisp, exciting, fully-immersive detail.

The T-Mobile drones will very likely act as a catalyst for redefining sports entertainment as we know it. They’ll also be instrumental in the future development of professional drone racing competitions, where 5G connectivity will allow for much better flight control.  What’s more, fans of DRL will be able to enjoy thrilling FPV clips on their phones, giving them the sensation of being inside the racing drone themselves.

While drone racing is something of a niche sport at the moment, 5G could change all that. First of all, the high-quality video streamed directly to fans’ devices can make the sport much more appealing. Secondly, in a post-pandemic world, virtual sports could begin to replace more traditional ones. As a result, businesses may start investing more in drone racing to make up for lost earnings.

5G drones delivering the goods

Online sales skyrocketed during lockdown, as did residential deliveries. The retail and hospitality industries were forced to undergo a major transformation in order to survive. Meanwhile, a broader range of shoppers got a taste of a different way of spending their money — and many of them liked it. Businesses are now trying to optimise online shopping and delivery systems to maximise their rates of return.

Drones are part of the picture, and they’re already in use for home deliveries. Google’s drone delivery service, for instance, is growing fast, both abroad and closer to home.

In fact, Queensland is home to one of Google Wing’s biggest domestic drone delivery services where essentials such as coffee, bread, hot chooks and sushi rolls are routinely delivered to thousands of customers.

Google Wing uses drones that are a cross between a fixed-wing aircraft and a regular drone. They transport small cargo of less than 1.2 kg, and they have a limited delivery range of just under 10 km. The time of delivery is within about 6 minutes.

As Google and other drone delivery services expand, there’ll be more drones flying around at the same time. Not only will 5G help support them, but it will also enable drone delivery services to reach much further afield.

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