MEC for Drones Panel: Unlocking 5G Edge Value for the Drone Industry
The emerging drone industry is undergoing significant growth and innovation. It provides services to a wide range of industries and applications, including security, safety and defense, disaster response, precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, measurement and inspection in constructions, shipping logistics, land surveying and mapping, aerial photography and video, etc. The variety of applications for drones is expected to expand.
The drone industry is leveraging continued advances in technology, including improved battery life, better obstacle avoidance systems, enhanced camera capabilities, specialized sensors, communications and the integration of artificial intelligence for autonomous flight and data analysis.
The integration of 5G technology with drones opens up new possibilities and revolutionizes the capabilities of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in terms of connectivity, remote operation, and collaboration between drones (drone swarms), etc. Furthermore, the 5G edge brings significant value to the drone industry by enabling low latency and reliability, providing scalable and efficient processing capabilities of data from their onboard sensors and camaras, ensuring data privacy and security and improving autonomy in drones that allows them to make faster and more intelligent decisions locally – without relying on continuous communication with a central server. This is particularly essential for critical real-time decisions required, for example, for safety applications. It also allows drones to react faster to changing environmental conditions and unexpected events. For example, they can adjust their flight paths, avoid obstacles or change their mission parameters in real time.
The Drones @ 5G-Edge panel held on June 26 2023 was an important venue to discuss and reaffirm the contribution of the 5G edge and its potential exposed capabilities to the overall performance, autonomy and efficiency of drones, enabling them to operate in a wide range of applications. In the panel discussions, we learned about operator perspectives, drone operations and innovative applications, as well as regulation aspects designed to ensure the safe and responsible use of drones.
Hans Similon, General Manager at Citymesh Safety Drones, presented the opportunities Citymesh brings in Belgium with its safety drones – fast-responding drones that arrive on the scene just minutes after a distress call is received. Their safety drones provide real-time situational awareness (based on 4k and thermal imaging that is enriched with AI insights) which helps the commanders to quickly identify the best course of action. The drones are connected via 5G which enables 360o video streaming, low latency remote control and network prioritization in case of congestion. Citymesh will offer Drone-as-a-Service to the First Responder in Belgium, leveraging Nokia’s CE-certified turnkey drone platform.
Jorge Munoz, VP Business and Marketing at Unmanned Life presented their “one software platform” for deploying, controlling and orchestrating fleets of different types of robotic devices, across different networks. The unmanned platform is interoperable across hardware vendors and across 4G, 5G, private wireless networks. It fuses data from various systems allowing the robots/drones to function together in real time and operate effectively as a coordinated robotic team despite their different operating systems, software stacks, and interfaces. 5G, AI-powered edge and IoT technologies are being leveraged for efficient data collection and intelligent decision-making to power a wide range of multi-robotic time-sensitive and data-sensitive applications in various domains such as security, sustainability and supply chain.
5G and edge provide high bandwidth to support real-time streaming and ensure robust low latency for autonomous control and monitoring.
Boris Resnik, CTO of Flyvercity, presented the core services their software platform provides to help scale up the number of safe, high-density UAV flights. The platform leverages 5G capabilities such as low latency, urban infrastructure and augmented positioning for its aviation-grade command and control. It supports flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) in a multi-operator environment, allowing them to cover much greater distances. Furthermore, the platform provides real-time collision avoidance services for high-density flights, based on sophisticated algorithms that consider secondary conflicts.
Yam Geva, CTO of Robotican, emphasized the crucial role of network connectivity and MEC in realizing the potential of their Rooster drone – a rolling, flying robot capable of operating indoors, outdoors and underground and in confined spaces. The Rooster uses both RF and cellular communication, and mesh communication to enable stable communication underground and increase the intrusion instance. The Rooster uses a variety of sensors and a 360o camera, and can stream real-time video from inaccessible areas, dangerous facilities and narrow passages. It is able to detect objects, be aware of situations, navigate autonomously and perform localization and mapping on it. The control unit supports 3 Roosters and can simultaneously access their First-Person Video (FPV) video streams.
The Rooster is effective for applications such as surveillance, homeland security, defense, infrastructure mapping and inspection, etc.
Cristiano Baldoni, Chief of Business Systems Integration at D-Flight, Enav Group, presented a service provide perspective on the preparation of the Italian airspace to accommodate U-Space and Innovative Air Mobility (IAM). D-flight is engaged in the development and provision of services for the management of low-altitude air traffic for Unmanned Aerial Systems (U-Space), and all related activities, in accordance with the Implementing Regulation of the EU commission 2019/947 of 24 May 2019 related to the operation of unmanned aircraft. Their portal allows drones to be registered in the Italian databased and assigned a unique identification code. Furthermore, it enables the retrieval of essential information to ensure safe operation in a given U-Space airspace, such as geographic awareness, real-time traffic information, tracking and monitoring services, weather services, tactical coordination between U-space Service Providers (USSP) and Air Traffic Services (ATS), etc. Clearly, the U-Space services are evolving as the technical capabilities of drones increase and promise advanced ways to interact with all types of vehicles, manned and unmanned, through digital data exchanges.
The discussion after the presentations focused on the exposure of network/edge capabilities that have the potential to support the mission and operations of safety, autonomous drones and Roosters, as well the orchestration and management platform services that support them. These could include for example:
- Ability to program specialized networks (network slicing) for (1) live video streaming (high bandwidth upstream towards the controller/orchestrator), (2) remote control (with low latency and high reliability) and (3) aviation-grade connectivity (with low latency and high reliability)
- Quality on Demand to support 360o video streaming
- Network customization to ensure traffic prioritization for crucial data in case of congestion
- SIM swapping to provide high resolution images from drones
- Provisioning/deployment of aviation vertical applications at the edge – as close as possible
- Accurate location and precise positioning information, including indoor, to support real-time services. Precise positioning is also used to support fusion between the network and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) for reliable surveillance.
- Computing resources for live video stream analysis
Mikko Jarva, Head of Network Monetization Platform Portfolio Management and Architecture at Nokia demonstrated how Nokia’s Network as Code (NaC) can unlock the network’s value potential for drone applications. NaC allows applications to easily program the networks for their needs, making the networks contextual and specialized.
The demo focused on UAV-based monitoring and inspections. It featured a drone with an HD camera and 5G connection, as well as two edge-cloud applications of scene analytics and anomaly detection. NaC provides capabilities to program on-demand a specialized network for UAV streaming and support “man in the loop” monitoring. It allows changes to the network profile and the quality of the video stream to enable improved inspection. Furthermore, when anomalies are detected, it is possible to switch to a 360o camara to provide truly immersive detection and allow a human to take control. When poor stream quality is detected, NaC initializes and switches to a hi-speed uplink.
The presentations are publicly available via Panel drones - MECwiki (etsi.org).
What are the key takeaways from the panel?
5G and edge cloud have huge potential to bring significant value and open up new possibilities for the drone industry, enabling it to operate in a wide range of applications. The GSMA and GUTMA (Global Unmanned Traffic Management Association) formed the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity (ACJA) initiative with the aim of introducing aviation vertical requirements to the communications side of the 5G system and strengthening cooperation between the aviation and mobile industries.
ETSI MEC offers cloud-computing capabilities (access-agnostic) and an IT service environment at the edge of the network. MEC enables the exposure of edge capabilities (including RANs) and context information that can be leveraged to optimize the network and service operation and proactively maintain application quality. Moreover, contextual information and location awareness can be used to create highly personalized services which can be tailored to the needs and preferences of applications. The drone deployment and scaling roadmap should also be coordinated with the MEC standardization roadmap. It is recommended that ETSI MEC be instrumental in establishing a collaboration framework with ACJA to align the drone industry’s requirements and needs from the network edge and to help unlock 5G edge value. Furthermore, ETSI MEC can provide an environment for PoCs and hackathons to demonstrate the technology’s viability for the drone industry and channel the learnings back into its specification work.
At the same time, ETSI MEC can continue to enrich its Radio Access Network Abstract API for vertical industries based on the panel’s insightful discussions.