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Charting a Flight Path for UAS: 5G Experimentation Key to Commercialization

Dr. Leila Ribeiro Technology Director, MITRE Engenuity Open Generation

Drone technology has enormous potential to revolutionize the way many services are performed. Still, growing the commercial potential of such uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) will remain in a nascent stage until a balance is struck where industry stakeholders are able prove to regulators that their technology can operate safely, and regulators are able to incorporate stakeholder data into a streamlined regulatory process.

5G connectivity is key to continued safe operations. 5G enables more advanced communications with UAS devices, which can ultimately enable longer flights beyond operators’ visual line of sight (BVLOS). Specifically, stakeholders must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators that Command and Control (C2) communications and Detect and Avoid (DAA) systems used by UAS satisfy minimum levels of acceptable risk.

5G has many promising business use cases, and UAS may be one of the most significant, as the industry’s high-stakes needs are poised to be uniquely enabled by 5G’s low latency, reliable connectivity, and huge data capacity. Regulatory approval for BVLOS operations in a normalized fashion would enable the next phase of commercial drone use across industries, including emergency response, infrastructure inspection, and logistics.

UAS and 5G stakeholders, including MITRE Engenuity Open Generation’s members, are actively collaborating on experiments designed to leverage 5G capabilities, and ultimately prove safe and reliable UAS BVLOS flight under various complicated circumstances.

Open Generation’s Approach to Critical C2 and DAA Testing

The ongoing rollout of 5G infrastructure promises a path to commercialization for the UAS industry, but close stakeholder coordination is required for success. This collaboration is key, as it’s unlikely any single company or organization can handle the task alone. Testing environments and extensive R&D are costly, and findings from a single organization are less likely to impact standards and inform regulations than data consolidated from joint efforts that represent and benefit the entire industry.

The ongoing rollout of 5G infrastructure promises a path to commercialization for the UAS industry, but close stakeholder coordination is required for success. This collaboration is key, as it’s unlikely any single company or organization can handle the task alone.

That’s why Open Generation brings together diverse technical viewpoints and expertise from across industries to collaborate on experiments and strategies for shepherding 5G use cases into reality. Here’s a brief overview of that collaborative process:

  • Open Generation members first study the use case, seeking to identify challenges and match them to corresponding 5G capabilities that could help overcome them.
  • Next, working groups set out to prove that 5G can indeed solve the identified challenges. These working groups are where the rubber meets the road within Open Generation’s collaborative approach. For UAS, this work includes planning and implementing uniquely enabled testbeds, using them to conduct actual tests and iterations.
  • Finally, Open Generation publishes its findings and recommendations and shares them with public regulatory bodies. Our mission to accelerate 5G innovation for the public good is not complete unless our findings benefit the larger ecosystem and economy.

Executing on Experimentation

The path to UAS commercialization promises to be complex and challenging, but Open Generation and its members are already making progress on their collaborative approach, recently announcing plans for the nation’s first 5G private network on an FAA-designated UAS test range.

The existence of this aviation range will help overcome one major barrier in R&D for BVLOS operations: the inability to test and operate drones in a safe, 5G-enabled BVLOS environment. Located in Rome, New York, the range will include approximately 65 square miles of BVLOS 5G testing area, enabling collection of meaningful data related to the dependability, latency, and bandwidth improvements unique to 5G.

Goals for New Test Range

With experimentation pending at the new 5G private testbed, Open Generation and its members are aiming to address crucial questions:

  • With respect to FAA safety requirements:How well must a C2 system perform within existing mitigations to allow connectivity that is perceived as safe for a given UAS operation? What can be done with the network configuration and architecture to leverage 5G capabilities and further improve that connectivity? How do performance requirements vary by use, UAS automation levels, dependence of DAA capabilities on the C2 link, and the operational environment? Can DAA functions processed at the edge of the network provide improved performance?
  • With respect to the use of commercial cellular services:While the government has a vested interest in 5G acceleration, the approval criteria for aircraft operations over cellular systems remain unclear. How can we demonstrate mitigated safety and security risks and share standard recommendations that will protect and enhance public safety?

As we systematically confront tough technical challenges like C2 architecture for safe BVLOS operation, we unlock not only the life-changing applications of drones, but also help expand 5G capabilities applicable to more complex use cases, further advancing both current and future aviation systems.

Learn More About Collaborative 5G R&D

Inspired? Join us. Open Generation welcomes UAS start-ups, wireless networks, standards bodies, academia, and other groups for membership.