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From agriculture to engineering, insurance, and infrastructure, the enterprise use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is on the rise.

PwC estimates that the total market value of drone-powered enterprise solutions will exceed $127bn, with the value of drones to communication service providers accounting for nearly $20bn.

For telecom operators, drones open the door to a range of opportunities. Due to the costs and expertise required to provide these solutions, it is not viable for individual organizations to establish their capabilities; and there lies the opportunity for telecom operators.

The benefit of drone technology is not a new concept in the telecom industry. In 2016, Etisalat won a prestigious Glomo Award at Mobile World Congress, held in Barcelona, in recognition of the “Drones 4 Good” initiative. Etisalat's "Drones 4 Good" came first in the 'Best Mobile Innovation for Health' category, as it demonstrated the use of specialized drones to transport polio vaccine to remote locations.

Telecoms operators are well-positioned to develop these capabilities by building on their existing strengths in connectivity, cloud, big data, and analytics, as well as capitalizing on the partnerships they already have in place to augment these capabilities.

As connectivity improves and automation increases, we can expect to see drones at the edge, completing autonomous missions, and uploading data directly to the cloud, bringing substantial business benefit to telcos and other enterprises.

Drones make it possible to perform remote engineering and network planning tasks, automate tower inspections, and enhance the measurement of wireless coverage and performance. They will help accelerate the rollout of 5G networks and enable new use cases leveraging 5G connectivity.

It appears as though the future of drones is now. And the coronavirus pandemic has certainly helped to speed up adoption and use cases for aerial fleets.

Automating inspections 

The key application areas for drones in telecoms are maintenance monitoring and keeping infrastructure and installations in good condition.  

In the past, technicians had to climb to the top of towers and complete a manual count on the different installed equipment. Manual inspections are usually conducted on a limited portion of the tower, meaning that many telcos don’t have a complete record of the equipment mounted on their towers or comprehensive data on whether towers have available space to host new equipment.

As a result, these companies often find themselves without a central digital repository for processing insights – and no easy way to gain meaningful, portfolio-wide intelligence.
Automated drone inspections offer a powerful alternative. Using high-precision flight planning, automated capture, and intelligent data processing, telcos can automate the tower inspection process and use drones to autonomously survey their assets.

Drones can inspect installed equipment at the top of towers or over large areas with greater speed – lowering costs and reducing the risks to staff. The drones can take pictures, videos, measurements, and readings, and store the data for later use.

AT&T launched a programme in October 2016 that uses drones to inspect cell towers. Verizon also uses drones to inspect tower sites affected by severe storm flooding. AT&T uses drones to test signal strength across different regions in the US. Nokia has performed similar experiments in the UAE.

According to the GSMA’s latest Mobile Economy report, operators will spend $1.1 trillion globally in CAPEX between now and 2025, 80% of which will be on 5G networks. These 5G networks will require telcos to build, inspect, and maintain more sites, which will ultimately serve as locations for drone technology.

Drone-powered solutions

With the telecoms market evolving and operators seeking new commercial opportunities, the potential market for drone-powered solutions (DPS) is significant.

In addition to the benefits DPS can provide to telecom operators, there is also an opportunity for telecom operators to provide these solutions as services to other organizations.

Telcos have deep expertise in connectivity, cloud computing, and big data, and already have network infrastructure in place. This means they are uniquely positioned to monetize enterprise drone operations and become expert providers of automated drone solutions to private enterprises and the public sector.

Telcos could offer DPS by building partnerships in areas related to drone procurement, data processing, and data delivery, and by leveraging their internal capabilities across the value chain.

According to a Vodafone white paper, because telcos already possess the cloud infrastructure and network capacity needed to manage, store, and archive high volumes of data, it won’t take much for them to meet the need for data live-streaming, analyze drone-collected data, and provide their customers with unique insights.

A PwC report also states that the market for DPS, excluding drone procurement, in the Gulf Cooperation Council is expected to reach US$1.5 billion by 2022. This market can be served through multiple business models, such as end-to-end commercial drone services, on-demand live video data acquisition, or a fully autonomous system operated at a client’s premises.

Drone traffic control centers

Telecom operators could help to establish a drone traffic control center (DTCC) that would enable control of drone operations, and ensure compliance with regulations.

Telecom operators can provide the connectivity required for data transfer so that drones can be tracked by airspace regulators and receive real-time air traffic information.

Telcos could facilitate the technology components of the DTCC, from end to end, by supplying and managing data storage, connectivity, cybersecurity, professional services, and applications, including a drone traffic management system and real-time reporting and analytics.

By becoming a provider of these services, telecom operators will be able to meet their own needs, quickly gain a critical mass of skills and experience, and then offer these services to the market – achieving economies of scale and building new revenue streams.

Challenges

Before telcos can seize on the efficiency and revenue-generating opportunities that drones provide, they must first be able to conduct safe and compliant drone operations. Drones fly in low-altitude airspace, which can introduce new safety and compliance concerns.

To realize the full potential of drone technologies, it will be vital to have air traffic management systems in place that prevents collisions between drones and other aircraft.
  
Along with the benefits with drones to the telecom industry comes a responsibility to operate them in ways that respect personal privacy. As drone operators perform flights over various types of sites, the vast amount of data they collect could include sensitive or confidential information about private property or behavior.

Given this risk, there is a need for clear international laws and guidelines on how companies should store data, and how individuals and companies can defend their privacy rights.

The lack of clarity on this vital issue of privacy is discouraging some companies from adopting drone-powered solutions.

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