A look at the telecoms industry news around the world this week reminds us that drone technology is coming fast, and is likely to be a valuable part of the infrastructure mix by the next decade.
From Australia through to India and beyond, drones are making headlines in trials which point the way to new uses for the technology, which will in help push out 5G and make it more accessible to more people around the world. This is starting to happen now.
Drones have been used commercially for more than 30 years, beginning with their use in 1980s Japan to spray pesticides on rice fields.
Some drone applications, such as by the military are spectacular, while others – their use by television networks and hobbyists – are more run of the mill.
From the middle of last year, drones started to appear in the telecoms industry when T-Mobile in the Netherlands used them as part of their network infrastructure maintenance, as part of the auditing and inspection process.
They have also been used by Nokia in the United Arab Emirates, while BT in the UK is introducing them for the same purpose in rural areas.
One of the big movers worldwide has been Verizon, which is not only trialing drones in maintenance, but is even testing their use to fly LTE cells into the sky to rebuild networks during disaster.
Verizon are also mooting the idea of data plans for drones as their commercial applications multiply.
This week, Australia’s Telstra began using drones in the remote outback of the country as part of the installation of its 4GX network.
The drones used by Telstra can go to altitudes of up to 120 meters, providing still images and video for on-ground analysis by technical experts, speeding up tower inspections after upgrades and weather events.
According to PwC, drones and telecoms have a bright future, and the firm is forecasting that the “addressable value “of drone powered solutions in the telecoms industry will grow to $6.3 billion by the mid 2020s. This would comprise around one quarter the value of all drone applications.
In India, meanwhile, drones are being seen as a solution to connectivity in rural and remote areas.
This is part of the Cell on Wheels (COW) technology, where drones deliver a portable mobile cellular site which provides temporary network and wireless coverage.
In more developed markets, this can deliver connectivity for specific events over short periods of time, but in markets like India the potential is more developmental.
Just as many people in emerging markets are leapfrogging stages of technology and jumping to the latest, so the country’s lack of development can – given the new solutions on offer – allow it to catch up fast.
This week come reports that Facebook has begun talks with Indian telecoms players and the government about pilot programs with its solar powered Aquila drones, as part of its Express Wi-Fi project to provide broadband services.
Aquila drones, it is hoped, will deliver fiber-like speeds in places without fiber and – in locations where it is not feasible to otherwise deliver broadband services.
The drones can beam signal to people within a diameter of close to 100 kilometers, and the idea is that once sufficient demand is build up, operators can install more permanent infrastructure and the drone can move off to do the same elsewhere.
Connectivity is not just a technology issue, it is an access issue and an issue relating to economic development.
If drones can be part of addressing that problem, then let’s give them a big telecoms industry style welcome.