The Communications Conundrum: How Autonomous Systems will Reshape Global Communications

cell phone tower

It seems that roughly every decade, we make an advance in wireless telecommunications that propels our ability as a society forward, enabling incredible new technologies and services. In the early days of cellular communications, around the late 1980s and early 1990s (I won’t bother starting earlier since most of those earlier systems were too expensive and hardly portable), the focus was simply about allowing people to communicate verbally. Soon after, with the innovation of using multiple channels and frequencies, we developed the technology to send data in sizes that really made a difference.

By 2007, the deployment of 4G networks was fairly mainstream, and the push for multimegabit service by providers worldwide allowed for the current class of smartphones we see today. The new devices, starting with the iPhone 3 and 4 series and including very early Android devices, gave us the ability to send images, music, movies, and rich media to and from these little portable powerhouses.

The next innovation in this area will be 5G, and it will change how we communicate, and everything we know and do.

In order to understand how this new communications medium will change autonomous systems, like drones, we need to understand the limitations of current communications, and the limitations of 5G for these systems.

Drones and Network Communication

Most autonomous systems used today are multirotor drones, and primarily that market is still made up of the recreational types, and the short-range systems used for filming events. However, the real commercial/enterprise market for intermediate and long-range drone systems has been growing exponentially over the last three years, and we are starting to see the evolution of this market. In fact, one of the major drivers of advanced communications systems is the autonomous vehicle market, including cars and trucks, but also including drones and ground-based robots.

In almost every country, one can find a decent or advanced 4G network already deployed in most major cities and suburban towns, or Greater City Areas. However, once you leave the GCA, wireless telecommunications becomes less and less available, with service being degraded or limited only to highways and offroads near those highways.

The obvious reason for this is that there is little or no incentive for telecommunications providers to develop or expand its wireless coverage to areas where their use will be very limited. After all, antennas and towers are not cheap.

What this means is that urban centers and their surrounding areas will be the locations that get the most bandwidth, densest coverage, and fastest speeds, while remote areas, will continue to get little growth, and vast regions of open space remaining devoid of any communications except for satellite and very long-range wireless systems.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel!

Intermediate aerial robotic systems like VTOL drones, or other fixed-wing systems, are demanding communications coverage over their 100km+ (60 miles) ranges. Furthermore, newer aerial systems are pushing 800km+ distances, operating over vast areas of remote terrain, much of which has little or no fixed infrastructure communications systems. This leaves the only means of communications to satellite phones for verbal communications with very short messaging abilities, or much more expensive and bulky BGAN or VSAT terminals providing higher bandwidth and data access, but with serious limitations for autonomous aerial systems.

The lack of broadband wireless networking across vast areas of space between urban cities is one of the major challenges preventing the growth of intermediate and long-range aerial systems. 5G can change that.

Understanding 5G Networks

The “Telecom Network Evolution & Application” or 5G standards which carriers around the world are now testing and deploying for the first time, allow for super-low latency, very high bandwidth communications. Currently, the best networks available in most cellular environments are LTE-A or LTE Advanced. This technology generally provides between 40-100mbs speeds with latency around 30-75ms depending on coverage and distance from your local tower.

As one can imagine, drones operating within an urban environment, needing to fly at fast speeds, would benefit greatly by ultra-low latency high bandwidth connectivity like 5G would provide. This could allow for drone-to-drone communications and super accurate location tracking, providing the awareness and collision avoidance needed for safe urban drone operations.

5G deployments will lead to speeds around 1 – 4 Gbps and latencies as low as 5 – 20 ms. You can almost hear nerds like myself drooling around the world about these numbers.

On paper, they seem amazing, and there has been a ton of hype and media about these fantastic speeds. It’s true that if you live in an urban center, saturated with 5G, you can cut your cable cord and go completely wireless at home, eventually we can imagine in-home WiFi becoming a thing of the past as all manner of devices like TV’s, appliances, home automation, and security systems will embed 5G connectivity internally, removing the concern about in-home networking, and improving security at the same time.

After all, who needs cable modems and wifi access points limiting your speed when you can get 1 – 4 Gbps with no wires from 5G?

But, there is a catch, and it is good and bad.

5G operates on a much higher frequency, and that means its signal has a hard time getting through walls and objects. In fact, it’s estimated that antennas will need to be placed around 300m apart for optimal coverage, whereas LTE can push signals for 50-100km depending on the antenna type. So that means carriers have to become very creative about deployments.

However, in urban environments, this means saturating every street and every corner with an antenna, it means every street light, every cable modem wiring node drop, and potentially every connected home will need a 5G CPE or comparable eNodeB (think network router/switch) device.

This deployment is actually happening right now in hundreds of major cities around the world and will take 1-3 years to fully saturate, but when it does, media services, overall quality of the network will explode. Streaming 4K video to phones, computers, TV’s will be instant and crystal clear, autonomous cars will be able to share data about its location and speed instantly, internet gaming will no longer require anyone to download the game, rather you just play what you want when you want, almost instantly.

Benefits of 5G Networks For Autonomous Systems

For autonomous aerial systems, this will mean massive connectivity, ability to share location and avoid obstacles, and will lay the ground for everything from drone delivery systems, to autonomous Uber-like aerial vehicles taking people from one location to the next.

The short-range of the 5G network antennas is certainly a drawback, but it has a silver lining, and it’s a crucial one. If one considers the very long range of oil & gas pipelines as an example, the lack of infrastructure and relatively short range of 5G antennas would present a real challenge of deploying 5G along a right of way.

For the most part, oil and gas operators have deployed SCADA sensors and other technologies along their physical infrastructure, and could potentially deploy 5G along these networks as well. Since these long passages are unsupervised, these deployments might be unlikely to happen.

The 5G antenna systems are actually cheaper and smaller than current wireless systems, and deployments are much easier. Additionally and perhaps most critically, by replacing LTE/HSPDA systems with 5G systems, carriers can and will be able to redeploy these older technologies to push their network coverage to a much wider area, where there are humans. In the future, there will probably be a multimegabit wireless network.

This crucial development will be the catalyst allowing for longer range, intercity connected networks, networks that will not only allow for autonomous systems to safely travel very long range but also allow for people to travel outside their urban centers in 4-6 passenger autonomous “cars”, allowing for easy city-to-city transport. The days of going to the airport to travel to a nearby city are almost gone.

This repurposing of older network technology will eventually remove the unsightly cellular antennas we are used to seeing on top of buildings, and pushing those old systems outwards from urban centers, greatly expanding coverage areas. So, watch for the future, because its already on top of us, autonomous drones will demand more coverage, safety will demand more coverage, and all of it will happen because people in cities will want more entertainment.

Funny world.