The following piece is a guest post by telecommunications specialist George Smith.
By now it’s pretty clear that Amazon’s master plan to take their delivery services to the skies via drone isn’t going to be easy. There are issues around flying beyond line of site, implementing obstacle sensors to avoid collisions, and getting regulatory approval. But there’s a completely different issue that no one is talking about: connectivity.
Maintaining a strong and stable internet connection for drones
Since delivery drones would fly autonomously rather than have a designated pilot, each drone needs to have the ability to send and receive information to air traffic control instantaneously so they know which parts of the air to avoid. To do that, Amazon’s drones will likely utilize a mixture of Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity.
Cellular connectivity will likely be delivered using roaming M2M SIM cards. M2M (machine to machine) means the communication between two or more devices without need for human interaction; in most cases this communication is in the form of data exchanges over a cellular network. These SIM cards allow technologies like drones to monitor networks for the best connection wherever they are in the country.
Battery life of drones
But with M2M SIM cards comes another obstacle: battery power. Although M2M can provide drones with connectivity, they can also be power-thirsty if exchanging large amounts of data. A potential solution? Low-powered wide-area networks, also known as LPWAN. LPWAN is a type of wireless telecommunication network designed to allow long range communications at a low bit rate, meaning they are extremely power efficient.
Although LPWAN services such as SigFox and LoRa are becoming more widely available, they aren’t yet being implemented in technology that flies — but that doesn’t mean they never will.
Managing drone GPS connections
As well as a strong internet connection, delivery drones require GPS signals to pinpoint their location and allow the companies to monitor the locations of their drones. But as drones fly farther away, with ‘beyond the line of sight’ comes greater risk of a dropped GPS signal. GPS signals are typically lost because of bad weather, changes in landscape and tall buildings in urban areas. GPS uses three or four satellites for extended periods of time at 50 bits per second. If Amazon want full visibility of their drones, they need to come up with a solution that helps avoid losing GPS connectivity whilst maintaining low battery consumption; a task that can be extremely difficult to implement.
One way to overcome this issue could be to prioritize the technologies being used at any one time. This could allow the GPS to work in bursts instead of on a continuous basis to show the general path of the drone, whilst other technologies such as obstacle detection are still in use. If the drone was to stay static — or go wildly off-route — for a few bursts, Amazon would be able to recognize there is an issue and retrieve the delivery drone whilst maintaining GPS connectivity and lower power consumption.
Drone-to-drone (D2D) communication is essentially M2M (machine to machine) communication between two or more drones, giving them the ability to talk to one another. This enables them to avoid other drones and therefore collisions. This process requires frequent data exchanges so that every drone understands the airspace it can use.
Drones need to monitor their surroundings in order to avoid any objects or obstacles that are in their flight path and aren’t transmitting any wireless signals. Though, many consumer drones (including the DJI Phantom 4) already have obstacle detection in their repertoire of functionalities.
If Amazon wants this technology in their drones, they need to be issued with sensors and software that can identify foreign objects and find alternative routes without disrupting their fellow flying delivery robots, hence Amazon’s keen interest in utilising “non-collaborative, sensor-based sense-and-avoid systems” and D2D within their delivery drones.
This is a guest post by George Smith. Smith is a Digital Marketing & PR Assistant for telecommunications specialist DuoCall.