Your smartphone likely connects over 4G, so why not also your drone? A 4G connected drone has theoretically unlimited range. While most drones on the market today can generally only fly out about 5-10 miles before losing their signal, a 4G drone would be able to fly anywhere there is a 4G signal.
The new Parrot ANAFI AI drone
And this summer, French drone maker Parrot released what it’s calling the first 4G connected drone on the market. Dubbed the ANAFI AI, the drone improves upon Parrot’s existing ANAFI drone with a key new component: the ability to fly without transmission limitations.
4G offers long range transmission at low frequency bands at 700MHz – 900MHz. And given that 4G is already widely and fairly reliably deployed world wide, many use cases would be served (though use cases where drones fly in rural areas that don’t have a 4G signal would not work).
Here’s how it works: You won’t actually need a subscription to 4G from the Parrot ANAFI Ai itself. Instead you’ll use any SIM card capable of sending data, and Parrot’s secured infrastructure that works with all smartphones.
ANAFI Ai embeds a Secure Element in the drone and in its Skycontroller 4. The 4G link between the drone and the user’s phone is encrypted. The Secure Element protects both the integrity of the software and the privacy of data transferred.
Parrot’s streaming software can optimize the definition and frame rate to the network quality. And yes, the 4G connection means you can operate the drone at any distance.
Besides the obvious benefit of 4G connectivity, other specs on the ANAFI AI include:
- 48 MP imaging accuracy with a stabilized 4K 60fps / HDR10 camera
- Intelligent obstacle avoidance for autonomous photogrammetry missions and other flights gives it the ability to see in all directions and use stereo cameras to sense objects and automatically avoid them.
- An open-source piloting application
- Security features to protect both the integrity of the software and the privacy of data transferred
Why is a 4G connected drone so important?
4G connected drones might not be a big deal for hobby pilots using their drones for photography. But 4G connectivity — or at least some sort of unlimited, reliable connectivity — is important for many of the biggest types of commercial drone operations including drone delivery.
Pretty much any drone flight beyond the operator’s line of sight — whether it’s delivery or a multi-mile energy infrastructure inspection, first response or police activity — would need a reliably strong signal.
For some drones on the market today that don’t use a 4G connection, flying in crowded space such as behind buildings can cause the drone to lose its connection. A lost connection typically results in flyaways and ultimately drone crashes.
Not to mention, flying drones in crowded areas like cities often put you at risk of Wi-Fi interference.
Flying with a cellular connection means you wouldn’t face those problems.
What about 5G drones?
And while 4G is big, 5G is exponentially bigger. 5G, which is short for “fifth-generation networks” means significantly faster networks than the current standard, 4G. For example, 5G is expected to allow you to download an entire movie to your phone within seconds, while it could take many, many times that to download a movie over 4G.
That would be the next step in drones — as 5G rolls out more widely worldwide — given how 5G could improve speeds. That means the ability to quickly transfer massive files from a mapping project, the ability to broadcast live aerial video for TV, or to run high-level drone racing operations.
Big telecom giants like Qualcomm and AT&T are vying for a piece of 5G. Verizon has even put out a television ad promoting 5G specifically as it relates to drones.
Other 4G connected drones to know about
The revamp of the ANAFI as a 4G connected drone could sets new standards for the types of specs and capabilities that professional drone pilots demand. There are other 4G connected drone products out there, but they’re all in various stages of development and to varying degrees of connectivity.
North Dakota-based drone startup Botlink builds what it calls the Botlink XRD, a drop-in replacement for your drone radio, allowing drone control from anywhere in the world via an LTE network. But the Botlink XRD is not actually a drone itself, rather it’s a system made up of both a computer-based connection application plus a small hardware device designed to mount on your own drone. Botlink’s customers have included NASA, Amazon and Verizon-owned Skyward, and is compatible with drones that use MAVLink autopilots such as the Pixhawk, Pixhawk 2, and ArduPilot Mega, running PX4 or APM firmware.
Another company called Sky Drone, which is based in Hong Kong, developed a product called the Sky Drone Link 3, which is an end-to-end encrypted low latency transmission system for drones utilizing 4G/LTE or 5G networks. The $2,000 system provides an unlimited-range command & control as well as UHD/4k resolution video-link via HDMI interface.
And private companies have built drones for their own internal use leveraging 4G or 5G, such as Verizon-owned Skyward testing 5G integration for drone delivery (though deliveries are also done using Verizon 4G LTE) of retail products at The Villages, which is a retirement community in Florida.
But Parrot bills its ANAFI AI as the first full drone for purchase to use 4G as the main data link between the drone and the operator.
Parrot’s products might be especially appealing to commercial drone operations not just for 4G reasons. Parrot was alo the first in the industry to make its piloting application open-source, offering developers a Software Development Kit (SDK) to execute custom code in the ANAFI Ai drone during the flight. The SDK gives access to all flight sensors, including obstacle avoidance sensors, occupancy grid and internet access.
And for what it’s worth, the Parrot ANAFI AI is not exactly ready to go itself yet either. The ANAFI Ai won’t be available until the second half of 2021. And you can’t just buy it on Amazon. You’ll have to purchase it through Parrot Drone Enterprise Partners or Enterprise Drone Reseller Network.