Integrating drones into airspace can be difficult. Still, it can provide a huge business opportunity to Mobile Network Operators to collaborate with aviation stakeholders by not only providing cellular connectivity for BVLOS flights, but other added value services as well. Why is the time now perfect for MNOs to allocate resources to drone projects?
First, the drone industry is growing fast. For years, we have been reading that the drone industry was young and that a path to maturity was still far away in the future. However, with the introduction of critical regulations in the U.S. and Europe, the promise of solid commercial market growth is turning into reality. Drone manufacturers and operators are transforming the ecosystem into a fully mature industry. The drone services market size is expected to grow to $63.6 billion by 2025, with three leading different business areas: inspection, public safety, parcel delivery. Another significant aspect to consider is that cities will see an increase in drone traffic with deliveries, emergency services, inspection services to lead the expansion. As operations in the urban environment carry some of the highest risk potentials due to the high population density, a high degree of control will likely be required for operators. For example, the recently approved European U-Space Regulation requires four mandatory services for drones to be operated in U-Space airspace with connectivity underpinning all of them.
Second, the drone industry needs connectivity.
A recent study published by the GSMA highlights a minimum of eight different use cases in which drone operators would benefit from connectivity and end-to-end service provision. These use cases range from simple ground control station backhaul connectivity to drone payload connectivity and more. There is no doubt that a connected drone has an exponentially higher number of use cases and applications than a non-connected one. Therefore, it is only natural to expect an increasing demand for connectivity services soon. In addition, for some operations connectivity might be required as it ensures clear accountability as there is always a pilot-in-command. While today most drone operators buy a regular SIM card and benefit from the connectivity services like any other mobile phone user, this approach is not sustainable for commercial use. Drone operators will need to transition to dedicated aerial services subscriptions with agreed level of services specific for aviation operators. These offers might range from essential services such as support for Remote Identification to complex integrated end-to-end services to support the most demanding and risk critical operations.
Third, MNO data make drone operations safer. MNOs are a great source of safety services to drone operators. The same GSMA study quotes at least six services that have been identified with a great potential to support operators in establishing solid safety cases. Perhaps the most striking example of such services, after providing safety critical connectivity, is Mobile Phone Data for use in Population Maps. Aviation regulators have promulgated requirements for drone operators to increase their operations’ safety level with increasing population density on the ground. However, as population maps are often based on census data, they often present a risk picture that is not in line with reality and overly conservative. MNO data can dramatically improve the risk picture for those operators with data that is representative and, most important, temporally accurate and reflective of the dynamics of people movement. AirborneRF allows this data to be transferred between MNO and aviation stakeholders seamlessly while taking care of privacy and security concerns.
Fourth, MNO can offer unique Over-The-Top (OTT) value-added services
Connectivity and safety services are of great importance to drone operators but MNO can offer much, much more. A connected drone can be provided with a host of OTT value-added services that can truly enable scaling and operations not imaginable today. From real-time high definition video-streaming to the capability for GNSS independent drone position validation in support of a robust conformance monitoring service, MNOs have the possibility to go above and beyond simple connectivity and monetize their unique position in the market.
There is ample evidence that the unmanned aviation sector is expanding and that an increasing number of services are required to support the rapid scaling. MNOs are uniquely positioned to offer a large part of those services, thus becoming one of the enablers of the drone revolution.