5G and Drones Part 1: What is 5G?

By Lukas Schroth of DRONEII. Originally published: January 2020

The global market for commercial drones has grown significantly over the last decade and is expected to grow from $17.8 USD in 2019 to $46.4 USD in 2025. According to our calculations, the number of functional drones will grow from 12.2 million last year to over 18.1 million in 2025, spurring flight authorities and society to seek solutions to overview all drone users and the traffic, especially in cities. Rapid technology advances on the propulsions, sensors and navigation and guidance systems led to reliable drone platforms. Consequently, drone technology became more widely adopted and the acquired data or transmitted video by drone grew immensely over the last decade. For this reason, not only does the drone industry require a quick data transfer from the drone to a computer or into a cloud-based processing program to decrease data processing time, but it also requires a low latency connection for live view or live streaming.

Drones are now established as viable tools for a diverse set of consumers. Commercial and governmental applications in aerial photography, agriculture, energy, construction, safety & security and logistics industry whose potential can be further exploited by flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot. One challenge and a key reason behind stringent regulations on BVLOS flights, is that the pilot must always be able to interfere in case something goes wrong. This can only be done if there is a permanent and reliable connection from the pilot to the drone. One promising technology to come up with solutions for the challenges is the cellular network – especially the new generation 5G. This article explains what 5G is and what connectivity improvements it brings.

What is 5G?

5G, or “fifth generation”, is the name of a standard for mobile internet and mobile telephony. It uses a 5G New Radio standard, along with other new technologies, that utilizes higher radio frequencies to transfer more data over the air for faster speed, reduced congestion and lower latency. Countries such as Germany only auctioned off the licenses in 2019, while others such as South Korea, Switzerland and individual cities in the USA already have been put 5G into operation.

5G is a new stage of development in mobile communications. Above all, it will revolutionize mobile data transmission through larger capacities within a cell. However, the innovation of 5G does not only mean that people will be able to use mobile data even better in the future. Instead, the 5G network offers us many other options when it comes to using technologies that rely on connectivity.

The graphic above shows the evolution of technology used to connect the drone with the pilot. While in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s, civil drones usually only had an uplink connection. Consumer products pushed the development of real-time remote control and video streaming (up-& downlink) before drones were taken into consideration for commercial applications. With increasing flight endurances, size of data sets and video streaming capabilities, alternative control capabilities were needed to overcome current RF limitations. Around 2015, first drones were successfully connected via the 4G mobile data network while the regulation and data transmission limitations still restricted further exploitation of drone capabilities up to the end of the 2010s. So, what does 5G bring that we didn’t already have with 4G?

Increased Data Traffic

Mobile data traffic around the world is increasing rapidly. Network operators face the immense challenge of meeting the need for fast data connections across the board by providing better and more far-reaching radio networks. Today, the connectivity of people is standard worldwide – the next step into the future follows extending this connectivity to machines and devices such as cars and drones. This network is called the Internet of Things.

Speed up to 10 Gbit/s possible

Tech companies promise a lot with 5G. While 4G theoretically reaches 100 megabits per second (Mbit/s), 5G could reach over 10 gigabits per second (Gbit/s) with an average of 100 Mbits/s. That said, 5G is a hundred times faster than current 4G technology at its theoretical top speed. Practically, it is expected that 5G speeds will range from about 50 Mbit/s to 2 Gbit/s at the introduction of the technology. But it’s not just data throughput. 5G promises to significantly reduce latency, which means faster loading times and improved responsiveness. Here there are maximum latencies of 4 milliseconds (ms) with 5G compared to 20 ms with 4G.

Drones & 5G Infographic Download Icon
This infographic gives an overview of the drone control connectivity evolution over the years and the relationship between 5G and drones.

5G New Radio Standard Can Support More Devices

The 5G New Radio interface enables a significantly higher number of devices being used within the same geographical area. This is because by using a millimeter wave spectrum 5G can support approx. one million devices per square kilometer – compared to only 4,000 devices with 4G.

5G As A New Communication Standard

5G is much more than just a fast connection in mobile communications. The requirements for the future network infrastructure are becoming more and more complex and the 5G network should in future be the basis for a multitude of applications, which in the broadest sense primarily concern data communication. Therefore, 5G can also be better classified as a new communication standard.

Moving Forward

There is a significant need within the commercial drone industry to find a solution to the challenges of increasing drone numbers, increased data transfer and flights out of sight. The new 5G standard for mobile internet seems to meet many requirements due to a high data traffic capability, fast transmission speed, low latencies and support from a large number of devices. In our second post on “5G and Drones” (coming next month) we’ll explore the benefits and applications of 5G in the commercial drone industry in more detail.

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