OnQ Blog

Path to 5G: Building a highway in the sky for autonomous drones

Nov 9, 2016

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

My previous blog post covered how wide-scale deployments of drones are expected to reshape many industries and enable new applications from package delivery and infrastructure surveillance, to search and rescue and visual inspection of crops. In order for drones to fulfill their potential, they must safely operate in densely populated cities as well as remote rural areas — knowing where and when they are not allowed to fly, such as in controlled airspace, near wildfires, over emergency sites, or through temporarily flight-restricted areas (e.g., stadiums during special events).

Currently, there is no established infrastructure that can safely manage this wide-scale operation of commercial fleets of drones. This has led to the need for UAS Traffic Management (UTM) solutions that can enable new capabilities, such as accurate and reliable drone tracking, two-way communications between drones and regulators, and access to real-time information for things like flight-planning, flight authorization and no-fly zones. 

When UTM systems are deployed, we envision fleets of drones flying missions autonomously while connected to operators and regulators. We envision package delivery operators, such as Amazon or UPS, controlling fleets of delivery drones that are in communications with a UTM servers (on the regulator side) and accessing local regulatory rules and real-time flight information. Based on this data, operators can set up geo-fences that prevent drones from entering restricted areas.

To help define UTM system requirements and enable this vision, Qualcomm Technologies performed a live demonstration at the UTM Convention 2016.

The demo shows a proof of concept of how an LTE-enabled drone can communicate with a regulator’s UTM server directly or through an operator, allowing a mission to be planned and executed from a centralized controller with access to real-time flight information, such as real-time flight permissions, real-time no-fly zone information, telemetry updates, as well as information about local regulatory rules.

The demo features an LTE-connected drone at the Qualcomm Flight Center. The drone is equipped with Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight and it has a UTM client to communicate with UTM server (regulators) and an operational client to communicate with centralized operator (e.g., UPS or Amazon delivery operation center).

In the demo, an operator writes a mission plan and transmits it to the drone over LTE network. The drone receives the mission and sends the mission to a UTM server and gets potential flight restrictions before starting. The UTM server can accept the mission, reject it, or modify it based on airspace conditions. As the drone take off, the operator and UTM server receive position update, telematics information and possibly a live video feed from the drone. The UTM system continually monitors the drone and the overall air traffic and has the ability to change the airspace constraints and flight path based on real-time conditions. For example, in case of an emergency or wildfire, the operator or regulator can send a message to the drone to alter its flight path.  This could result in the drone either exiting some volume of airspace, altering its path, or simply landing in a known location. The demo shows this scenario, where the operator sends a message to the drone, causing it to immediately return to a safe known location. In the demo, all of these capabilities are enabled by continuous connection to an LTE network.

To inform positive developments in drone regulations and 5G specifications, we have been studying how to support safe drone operation over commercial LTE networks. Qualcomm Technologies first worked with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on obtaining a certification of authorization (COA) and joined forces with AT&T to trial drone operation on AT&T’s commercial networks. In March 2016, the FAA granted Qualcomm Technologies a COA. Specifically, the authorization granted permission for operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in Class B airspace at and below 200 feet above ground level (AGL) within an operation area radius of 0.15 nautical mile for the purpose of research and development. Since March 2016, the approval expanded — increasing maximum altitude from 200 feet to 400 feet AGL and the operation area from a 0.15 to a 0.5 nautical mile. Then, we got approval to double our operational area from 0.5nm to 1.0 radius. This expansion will help our joint trial with AT&T for testing safe drone operations over LTE networks in controlled class B airspace in a very diverse environment — representing the real-world conditions that autonomous drones must one day navigate, including commercial zones, populated residential areas and large swaths of uninhabited areas.

Learn more about the role of cellular in safe drone operation — check out our Cellular Drone Communication page. Also, watch for Qualcomm Technologies at the Drone World Expo in San Jose, CA, November 15-16.

Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.


Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.

Maged Zaki

Director, Technical Marketing, Qualcomm Technologies

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