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Vodafone claims European drone first

Written by NTN staff

The telco has completed the first European trial of mobile tracking and control technology for long distance drone flights, which cannot be achieved by conventional radar.

The trial, the first trial of its kind in Europe, shows how mobile networks, in this case LTE-based, could support the European’s Commission’s vision of safe long distance drone flights, Vodafone said.

European businesses are considering using drones for a broad range of tasks including the rapid delivery of small, high-value payloads (like medical supplies), the monitoring of critical assets (such as energy pipelines), and rescue missions in hazardous conditions. But regulators will need technology support to ensure drones are constantly monitored when flying ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) and to enforce no fly zones around sensitive buildings (including schools, hospitals, prisons, government buildings and chemical plants).

The trial demonstrated that existing 4G networks, which are optimised for ground-based users, could simultaneously be used to monitor drone flights at up to 120 metres above ground level. This confirmed that RPS could be used as a back-up to GPS location, which is easier to disable or spoof than mobile technology supported by secure SIM cards, according to the telco, as conventional radar does not work with small devices like drones.

The trial was held near Cologne in Germany within a 3km by 1km test area using the 800Mhz band and with permission from the regional aviation authority. Representatives of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Commission observed the latest trials of RPS at a Vodafone test facility in Aldenhoven. To perform the trial, Vodafone secured an exemption under the German Regulation for the Operation of Unmanned Aircraft, which entered into force in April 2017.

Vodafone’s Radio Positioning System (RPS) uses a 4G modem and SIM attached to a drone, enabling a self-learning artificial intelligence system to calculate the position of the drone. The system will be able to indicate if a drone has veered off an agreed flight path, helping to safeguard aircraft, civilians, sensitive facilities and other drones.

For the first time Vodafone also showed that it was possible to identify two drones in close proximity and manage them separately. In future this could be done at mass scale with SIM cards in drones serving a similar function to aircraft transponders, it said.

Vodafone Group Chief Technology Officer, Johan Wibergh, said: “This important trial has shown the capability for mobile networks to help to implement a regulatory framework and enable the creation of a substantial drone services economy in Europe.

"In addition, we have learned a lot about how Vodafone’s mobile network and technology can support businesses seeking to introduce innovative new drone services.”