Have you had your dinner or latest online clothing order delivered to your doorstep by a drone yet? You might have if you live in one of the 27 countries where drone delivery operations are underway.i If not, your wait might not be long. Google’s Wing drone delivery service was recently the first to be approved for commercial flight in the United States.i And other players, such as Amazon, Uber and Walmart aren’t far behind as they continue to pilot different approaches.i
Drone deliveries might be the latest advanced technology use case capturing market attention, but it’s just one of the potential real-world business applications for these versatile devices. Like internet of things (IoT) sensor networks for industrial or smart city scenarios, drones offer an unprecedented opportunity to improve operations and user experiences while reducing cost. At the same time, safety and regulatory concerns, as well as the proliferation of data being collected, mean that the underlying IT infrastructure needs to be optimized to support the secure exchange of drone data without failures and at low latencies.
Drones: from the war room to the boardroom
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) originated as military devices used for surveillance and targeted air strikes. While the military segment may still be the largest share of the market in the short-term, recent advances in consumer and commercial grade drones are opening the door to a wide variety of applications. The market is just starting to take off, making projections difficult, but estimates range from $52-$144 billion by 2025.ii Here are a few examples of different types of UAVs and use cases:iii
- Military: Aircraft sized for long-term reconnaissance, search and rescue, and communications relays.
- Transportation and delivery: Retail and medical deliveries. Flying robo-taxis.
- Eye in the sky: Many cross-industry applications such as precision agriculture, inspections and surveys, inventory management, emergency response, monitoring and tracking (infrastructure, land, disease, pollution, environment, wildlife etc.).
- Eye in the water: Fish farming, monitoring and tracking (underwater infrastructure, water bodies, climate/weather, wildlife, etc.)
- Services: Insect-sized for pollinating plants or surveillance. Solar-powered high-altitude drones to provide electricity and internet access to remote areas. Medium-large sized for water waste management, maritime navigation, construction, etc.
- Emergency Cellular Services: During natural disasters when the underlying communication infra-structure has been destroyed, drones can be dynamically deployed to help resuscitate the cellular network.
The Economist might have put it best in their “Civilian Drones” report when they state, “Trying to imagine how drones will evolve, and the uses to which they will be put, is a bit like trying to forecast the evolution of computing in the 1960s or mobile phones in the 1980s. Their potential as business tools was clear at the time, but the technology developed in unexpected ways. The same will surely be true of drones.”iii
Meeting drone challenges in the middle
As exciting as these advances in drone applications are, they aren’t without challenges. Concerns about privacy, safety and noise are making citizens wary of drones in their neighborhoods. Criminal networks are using drones for everything from smuggling drugs and contraband to making assassination attempts. And, the regulatory environment, already slow to keep up with rapidly advancing drone technologies and applications, is also entrusted the responsibility of addressing these additional challenges.
However, as evidenced by Google’s recent win with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), business and policymakers are beginning to find a middle ground. A big part of that middle ground is ensuring that the future world of drones everywhere is one where they are operating safely, securely and seamlessly. That will require a wireless infrastructure that is: 1) scalable 2) secure 3) provides low latency and 4) high bandwidth.
Limitations of existing wireless infrastructure
As shown in Figure 1, drones communicate with their corresponding base stations using some type of wireless technology. Both control (in the range of kbps) message and data payload message transmissions (can be in the range of Mbps) occur between the drone and the base station. Typically, predictable low latency is needed for the control signals and high bandwidth for transferring the data payload. Existing wireless infrastructures deployed in many current drone solutions to communicate between the drone and the base station are inadequate for the following reasons:
Point to Point Networks: These networks leverage the unlicensed band (ISM 2.4GHz), but they are plagued with low data rates, are unreliable, insecure and vulnerable to interference. Furthermore, they also have limitations on the range (distance).
Satellite Systems: Some of the UAV navigation systems leverage Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigation. However, GPS signals are susceptible to being blocked by high buildings or bad weather conditions.
Cellular Networks: Existing cellular networks were designed to support asymmetric (one-way) high bandwidth traffic flow (e.g. for downloading or watching streaming video). However, many drone use cases will need high upload bandwidth – for example to transmit high definition video footage captured by drones. Cellular antennas are also tilted downwards to provide better ground coverage and reduce inter-cell interference, but “eye in the sky” drone use cases will need high altitude coverage from their base stations.
It is important to note that the above wireless techniques are not mutually exclusive and, depending upon the use case, a combination of them can be leveraged. There are proposals on the table to leverage existing cellular networks as the wireless communication mechanism between the drone and the base station. Cellular networks are pervasive and provide coverage in most major metros. The current cellular 4G networks are adequate for many of the existing drone applications, and, with the advent of 5G cellular networks, even higher scale, tighter latency and higher bandwidth requirements for next generation drone applications can be satisfied. However, the challenges noted above will need to be properly addressed. Fortunately, a lot of research is being done to clear the hurdles.
Activating a drone-ready IT architecture
Figure 2 illustrates how the control plane and data plane related processing for a drone application will be spread across the different nodes when using a cellular network as the wireless medium. The relevant nodes are the a) drone device b) cellular tower c) edge node (central office or a micro-data center) d) interconnection data center where the wireless networks offload traffic to the clouds (e.g. Equinix) and the e) backend cloud (e.g. a hyperscaler) in a distributed IT architecture. Depending upon the use case, the appropriate portion of the application will get processed at one of the above-mentioned locations. Current and future drone applications, including those that leverage swarm intelligence for drones to communicate and collaborate with each other, will require fast network speeds and minimal latency to exchange data traffic between drones and core clouds.
With 200 International Business Exchange™ (IBX®) data centers located in key metros around the world, Equinix enables this kind of distributed architecture. Strategically located within 10 milliseconds from end customers and 1-2 milliseconds away from the backend clouds makes Equinix an ideal location to deploy drone applications that need to be processed within the metro where the drone is operating due to latency, performance and security/compliance reasons.
Moreover, the majority of cellular network carriers route their traffic to the backend clouds at Equinix. As the world’s largest marketplace of partners and providers (more than 1,800 network service providers and 2,900+ cloud and IT service providers), Equinix is the natural place for these providers to peer and exchange traffic between each other.
Welcome to tomorrow
As a child, when I watched the movie “Blade Runner,” I always wondered whether I would live to see the day when something like that vision of thousands of drones/spaceships flying around would become a reality. With the recent U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ruling on commercial drones and the multi-billion-dollar investments pouring into commercial drone services, I think it will be sooner than later when we will have hundreds (if not thousands) of drones operating in our skies.
[i] Unmanned Airspace, Drone delivery operations underway in 27 countries, April 2019; Mashable, FAA approves Google’s drone delivery service for commercial use in the U.S., April 2019; Forbes, Amazon Debuts New Delivery Drone That It Says Will Start Shipping Packages ‘In A Matter Of Months’, June 2019; Restaurant Dive, Uber seeks approval for drone deliveries, May 2019; Investopedia, Walmart Patents Blockchain System for Automated Delivery Drones, Sept 2018.
[ii] Markets and Markets, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Market – Global Forecast to 2025; Adroit Market Research, Global Drones Market Size 2018 by End-User, Region and Forecast 2018 to 2025, Report Summary and Infographic, May 2019.
[iii] The Economist, Technology Quarterly, Civilian Drones, July 2017; Bloomberg Businessweek, Flying Robotaxis Prepare for Takeoff, June 2019; CBS Insights, 38 Ways Drones Will Impact Society: From Fighting War To Forecasting Weather, UAVs Change Everything, Jan 2019; DroneDeploy, 2018 Commercial Drone Industry Trends, May 2018;