The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

5G Connectivity Advances Set To Expand the Horizons for Autonomous Flight

Airborne connectivity specialist Skyward this week confirmed that the next generation of the FAA’s low-altitude authorization and notification capability (LAANC) is now live in its drone operations platform. The update introduces authorization requests for nighttime drone flights in controlled airspace, as well as improved airspace grids.

LAANC is a collaboration between the FAA and industry to support the integration of unmanned air systems (UAS) into the U.S. national airspace, giving drone pilots access to controlled airspace at or below 400 feet. Skyward is one of seven FAA-approved LAANC service providers.

The update to Skyward’s platform allows its customers to request automated and near-real-time access around the clock, as well as to seek higher-altitude LAANC clearances. It includes 3D airspace intelligence, flight planning, and logging, personnel fleet management tools, 2D mapping, 3D modeling, and live flight tracking as part of a redesigned mobile app.

Skyward’s efforts to support existing UAS operations under the current LAANC system are part of its longer-term commitment to enable the expansion of autonomous flight operations through more advanced connectivity. It is working to develop the standards and technologies needed to connect aircraft to the Verizon wireless network. According to the Verizon subsidiary, such a connection will enable autonomous flight technology to take massive leaps forward, enabling long-distance flights and, eventually, flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).   

“While the technology to control drones beyond the sight of the pilot already exists, current regulations in the U.S. make it challenging to get permission to do so,” Bri O’Neill, aviation communications program manager at Skyward, told FutureFlight. In the first instance, Verizon’s technology is mainly being applied in the drone sector, but advances in 5G connectivity have wider potential to support autonomous flight operations for eVTOL aircraft and other advanced air mobility applications.

O’Neill explained that most small drone operations use an unlicensed spectrum for command and control (C2). However, because in the U.S. market this spectrum doesn’t require an FCC license, there are no protections against interference from others using the spectrum, meaning no one user has a right to an exclusive or uninterrupted connection. While the unlicensed spectrum makes sense for routine drone operations, such as those authorized under Part 107 regulations, it is insufficient to support complex BVLOS operations.

“We believe that cellular networks, which utilize spectrum protected from interference, will be critical to ensuring the safety and security of the C2 link needed to unlock BVLOS operations,” O’Neill said.

Skyward has signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the FAA to test cellular-connected drones. Titled "Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)—Cellular Technologies To Support UAS Activities," the MOA allows Skyward and the FAA to mutually research the capabilities of cellular communication networks for C2 within the National Airspace System.

At this time, the MOA is focused on 4G LTE technology because of its ubiquity and ease of public access. However, many of the principles of using cellular networks for the command and control of drones will apply to 5G, which O’Neill said has many exciting use cases under development.

Laying the groundwork for autonomous eVTOL operations

What does this mean for larger, autonomous eVTOL operations? While the MOA is limited to Part 107 UAS operations, O’Neill said that the cellular C2 standards that will come out of the MOA could be applied to a variety of use cases, including eVTOLs operated without a pilot on board.

“We don’t see a regulatory path for fully autonomous operations in the near future, but we look forward to increasing autonomy within drone operations,” she said. “The work being done within this MOA is an important first step towards such autonomy.”

According to O’Neill, highly autonomous aircraft operations such as what will be needed by eVTOLs will require well-defined safety and operational parameters, likely within the context of Part 135, Part 91, or some new UAS-specific Part 91-like certificate. Likewise, cellular C2 standards will need to account for the complexity and risk levels of the operation, as well as the autonomous capabilities of the UAS, to determine the required levels of service from the C2 link service provider.

“Assessing cellular link performance on drones sets the foundation for understanding how cellular services could be applicable to other aviation use cases,” added O’Neill. “The results of the MOA will include recommendations for standards and regulations governing the use of cellular as a technology for C2.”

These suggestions will be from the perspective of which network is available, i.e. 4G or 5G. “We can consider items like resource management, performance expectations, and what future networks may or may not be able to support,” O’Neill said. She added that “4G is a more restrictive network case, aside from spectrum, which is outside of the FAA, so this sets a good precedent for making suggestions that we can support with 5G, too.”

4G LTE Today, 5G Tomorrow

In the future, eVTOL manufacturers will be able to easily integrate 5G-capable devices into their systems. “Today, an [aircraft] OEM can already integrate Verizon’s 4G LTE technology into their system via a variety of supplier choices based on the needs of their communication system,” explained O’Neill.

After an eVTOL manufacturer integrates 4G LTE into their aircraft, it is tested via the Verizon certification process to ensure that the design and operation of the radio comply with existing FCC certifications and meet the performance criteria for the Verizon Wireless network. Once approved, the aircraft can send C2 and payload data over the Verizon 4G LTE network.

Verizon’s wireless 4G LTE networks have the capacity to carry much more data off a drone than a typical radio frequency (RF) controller using an unlicensed spectrum. Additionally, O’Neill expects 4G LTE cellular network connectivity for drones to enable a myriad of complex operations, ranging from remote fleet deployments to artificial intelligence and fully automated flights.

“We’re already seeing the technology deliver services to airborne users for the purpose of command and control of a drone, streaming video, and other data transfer in low-altitude airspace,” she said. “As drones begin connecting to next-generation 5G networks, we’ll see a transformation for many aspects of society, which will include an exponential increase in data transfer capacity.”

Regardless of how or when 5G connectivity becomes available for drones when it does happen one thing is certain: it will supercharge eVTOL operations. Noted O'Neill: “5G will enhance the eVTOL’s autonomy, placing more data-intensive capabilities onto the wireless link and removing this overhead from the drone. This, in turn, will extend the utility of the vehicle by reducing the power required to collect, process, and act on important data.”

The same processes that Verizon utilizes for managing and deploying a high-quality LTE experience today will hold true for 5G. “We are already deploying these services to serve millions of consumers with 5G handsets, 5G homes, and 5G stadiums,” concluded O’Neill. “For drones and robotics, we are working with the ecosystem to further enable developers to easily access trusted services from Verizon’s 5G network to protect cost and efficiency in their product design, increase the safety and compliance of their aircraft systems, and expand the operational capabilities of their customers.”