Airborne Networks: Drones to the rescue

Smart Communication

Airborne Networks: Drones to the rescue

Out of the ashes of disaster, drones are rising to the challenge of setting up communications – Airborne Networks – to help the rescue services fighting to save lives in the most trying of environments.

by Eric Doyle

When disaster strikes, buildings collapse, roads become impassable, and communications break down. Chaos reigns and rescuers have to battle through the devastation to minimize loss of life and reestablish some semblance of order. The first need is to reestablish a communications network so that rescue teams from numerous countries can coordinate their efforts and prevent further loss of life – and to enable isolated communities to call for help. Traditional cell networks take time to set up and rescue teams often set off, independently, with basic walkie talkie radios. Two innovations have arrived that could vastly improve this situation: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and small-cell telecom transmission pods.

The idea of drone-based, small cellular networks (DSCNs) captured the imagination of phone service providers several years ago as a way to provide pop-up, local base stations. The initial idea was to use DSCNs to provide connectivity in remote regions or in mountain areas where masts are uneconomical or simply don’t work. The main advantage of DSCNs is that they enable standard cell phones to be used – so anyone, rescuer or citizen, can use the network without specialized equipment, and the height at which drones operate massively increases the coverage.

Cheap commodity drones have made the provisioning of wireless networks even more economical, but there is a downside: the greater the weight carried by a drone, the faster the battery is drained. Consequently, many drones being used are tethered to the ground by power cables to ensure they can run indefinitely – but at the cost of maneuverability.

Airborne Networks - Nokia uses drones for network data collection

Things Go Wrong: Nokia and Vodafone are developing femtocell networks to help firefighters communicate during emergencies with Airborne Networks.

The power issue is benefiting from “femtocell” developments – small 4G and 5G transmitter/receiver cells which are light and run on low power.

These femtocells, picocells, microcells, and macro cells, listed in increasing transmission ranges from around 10 meters to 35 kilometers, can dynamically reconfigure the heterogeneous networks (HetNets) they form to ensure resilience if things go wrong. This has fired up several test beds, with Nokia joining mobile operator Vodafone to produce a system for firefighters in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the Finnish comms equipment maker also pairing with EE to test a DSCN in Scotland.

The COWs are coming home to roost – Airborne Networks

The most advanced drones, AT&T’s Flying COW (Cell on Wings) UAVs, are already in use. Art Pregler, AT&T drone program director, says, “We started investigating the use of drones a few years ago to bring connectivity to first responders and the public during emergency situations. AT&T first deployed its Flying COW in Puerto Rico as a part of our disaster recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria. This was the first time an LTE cell site on a drone had been successfully deployed to connect residents after a disaster.” Drones were also used in the US last year in recovery efforts after hurricanes Michael and Florence. Pregler says standard Flying COWs can handle 40 kph winds, while carrying a 13 kg payload, while all-weather drones can handle 60 kph winds and 80 kph gusts.

In the near future, autonomous cars and other smart city systems will rely on 5G and the work being done now will help when mini-disasters strike and black out an area.

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