Over the last few years, drones have assisted humans in ways we would never have imagined a decade ago. Their common uses are aerial video over buildings, infrastructures, and even crops, but another use they are soon to be known for is improving mobile and internet services for emergency use.
First, let’s talk about the problem. There are many rural areas in this country that don’t have strong cellphone or internet service signals. This poor mobile connectivity is not only frustrating, but it’s dangerous in life-threatening situations. During an emergency, a slow response from life-saving services means a much higher risk of death or permanent injury. This is a tough issue to tackle. Mobile providers, at least in other countries, have been testing the idea of using drones as a remedy to this serious problem.
Over the last two years, mobile operators have been flying quadcopter drones with portable mobile stations attached to them as mobile base stations in Scotland. The hope is that in an emergency, a drone would be sent to a disaster area and hover overhead to provide 4G mobile network series to people who are approximately within 30 miles of the drone. The major obstacle here is that drones can’t fly for very long on their battery; the average drone battery life is about 30 minutes, at max.
Bigger Companies Are Getting Involved
Now, telecommunications giants like AT&T are stepping in to help develop a larger, helicopter-like drone that they have dubbed the “Flying COW”, COW standing for Cell on Wings. The Flying COW would be tethered to the ground by a cable that provides power to the machine. This will enable AT&T’s Flying COW to stay airborne all day and all night. It will stay at flight 24-hours a day at a maximum altitude of 550 feet.
According to AT&T, the Flying COW was used to provide emergency 4G coverage in November when Puerto Rico was struggling during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Each of their drones was able to cover about 22 square miles.
Nokia wants to push the technology further and turn police cars, ambulances, and firetrucks into mobile command and control centers to help provide better signals in the field, and to a broader area. Basically, a firetruck would have its own 4G network that would provide service up to 30 miles.
Drone Technology Further Helps to Promote Emergency Rescue
Another side to this is, once these emergency vehicles are equipped with the mobile technology, they would launch the drones and cameras to use for surveillance of the scene. This would allow for better access to disaster scenes, and would also keep firefighters out of danger as much as possible.
As Thorsten Robrecht, Nokia’s Vice President of Advanced Mobile Networks Solutions explains, ”You don’t need to send firemen into the hostile environment, you will have full situational awareness immediately,” and as far as the solution goes “What we see from the police is that this is much quicker and lower cost than a helicopter, which they still mostly use today.”
Start-up company, Unmanned Life, is developing software with the capabilities of sending out many drones at the same time to survey a situation. One drone would fly out to provide 4G coverage, and multiple other drones can then transmit back information like video, heat maps, and sonar to map damage.
5G and the Future of Drones
Trials are demonstrating that the future generations of ultra-fast 5G networks would be so powerful that the data streams would never drop from the drone to the ground.
“We need to keep the drone very simple and cheap,” says Phil Bonner of Ericsson. “I think drones together with 5G networks and the IoT [internet of things] offer tremendous opportunities.”
On the other side, drones used to assist in cell delivery and emergency surveillance is that they have to make sure there’s nothing for the drone to crash in to. Many are rushing to develop some sort of air traffic control system for drones, but nothing of the sort exists just yet.
“Nokia has a system run on the 4G network that can connect all the drones and knows where they are, we have a commercial aircraft 4G network covering the entire airspace in order to connect all the aircraft flying around,” says Robrecht “We’re trying to work out how to connect the two networks.”
Once this tricky area is sorted out, there’s a lot of future for the use of drones in many different situations. One common thing people at big events like sports games or concerts run into is, there are so many people on one network that service is slowed to a crawl. By using the mobile drone providers, the networks would be boosted to satisfy the demand under the network.