How drones are proving their worth during the COVID-19 crisis

In this guest post, TEOCO’s Thomas Neubauer updates us on how drones are being used by first responders and for public safety applications during the COVID-19 crisis – proving the technology is no Cinderella service.
The World Health Organization has highlighted how drones are being used in China to fight COVID-19 by sanitizing outdoor spaces that teams on the ground can’t access.  And a recent Forbes article shows how drones are being used for crowd control and to identify those who’re not wearing masks. Drones have also helped solve the challenge of reaching those in isolation to deliver groceries and medicines.
In China, in just a few days, several drone delivery flight corridors were put in place, replacing hours-long drives and boat rides to reach remote communities with a 2 km flight that could be completed in just 10 minutes.
While in Japan, the time taken to get COVID-19 test samples from local hospitals to the country’s disease control centers were reduced by up to 50% using drones, with the additional benefit that drivers were kept safe by not having to handle harmful substances or be exposed to other humans. At the peak of the operation, the country was running 20 or more flights a day.
In Europe, governments are using loudspeaker drones to broadcast public safety messages urging people to maintain a safe distance outside and to discourage travel.  In the UK, for example, drones are being used by an overstretched police force to identify and warn, through a video camera and loud speaker, those who are breaking strict social distancing rules.  While the application has not been without controversy from a policy point of view, the technical efficacy of the solution is not in any doubt.
The prize for the most futuristic use case, goes to Australia, however, who is partnering with a Canadian drone manufacturer to create Pandemic Drones that use thermal technology to monitor its citizens for fevers, along with respiratory issues such as coughing and sneezing.
Recently, California, Florida and New Jersey became the first US states to use drones to monitor and alert residents who are violating social distancing rules.
Regulatory hurdles
As promising as the technology is, the current challenge is that rules and regulations aren’t quite keeping pace with demand. With the rare exception of those who are able to obtain a special waiver, as of today, there are no airspace regulatory agencies that have approved drones for operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). But this is expected to change within the next two years.
Recently, the Small UAV Coalition filed a request for expedited waivers so that drones can be used to carry supplies in both rural and metropolitan areas, and a group called DRONERESPONDERS has formed a task force for exploring potential use cases and mission planning needs for drone operations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, the US Federal Aviation Administration and other global organisations recognize the need and are laying the groundwork for establishing regulations for BVLOS flights, including a traffic management ecosystem called UTM. The intent is that airspace will be managed through this UTM to enable multiple drone operations conducted beyond visual line-of-sight, where air traffic services are not provided.
The role of service providers
Having already proven their worth, drones will be a ‘must have’ in future public safety applications, first responder and smart city initiatives. To safely support the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at scale and to enable them to operate beyond visual line of sight, it’s vital to maintain a constant wireless connection that supports a mandated Remote ID, along with connectivity for command and control.
This is needed to provide airspace regulators with a way to approve flight paths, track their locations and ensure there is no interference or safety risks to people on the ground or manned aircraft. Wireless network providers are the best alternative for maintaining secure cellular connectivity to help support all these requirements, and more.
While many current use cases are leveraging 4G, the introduction of 5G network slicing means that service providers will be able to go beyond delivering ‘best-effort’ services, to providing a guaranteed level of connectivity and other features where critical SLAs can be supported. Network slices, SLAs and connectivity will all need to be monitored and assured on an ongoing basis, enabling CSPs to charge for this premium service. By supporting services such as drones, CSPs will be able to sell SLAs as a new business model, and not just kilobytes of data per second.
Mobile service providers can easily become part of this ecosystem, with new business and partnership opportunities in the making.  With BVLOS, network operators have an opportunity to create new revenue streams and capture a piece of the projected $100 billion drone market. By preparing wireless networks now, and putting the pieces in place for communicating with federal agencies, drone service providers, first responders and others, communication service providers can position themselves to play a critical role in the success of this nascent industry – while also helping to save lives and protect communities.
Thomas Neubauer is the Vice President of Business Development & Innovations at TEOCO. He was previously the founder and Managing Director of Symena, which was acquired by AIRCOM in April 2012. AIRCOM was subsequently acquired by TEOCO in December 2013. Thomas has more than eleven years’ experience with automatic cell planning (ACP) and mathematical optimisation. His experience has been applied to GSM, WCDMA, CDMA, WiMAX and LTE network design and operations, and his academic background is in smart antennas and MIMO systems.  He holds a PhD in telecommunications engineering from the Vienna University of Technology.
TEOCO’s AirborneRF is a data exchange platform designed for connecting the telecom industry with the aviation industry. To find out more see here.
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  1. […] Thomas Neubauer highlighted in a recent guest post, unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) – otherwise known as ‘drones’ – have […]