U.S. operators have big role to play in drones, says Small UAV Coalition leader

Wireless operators are going to reap benefits by working with the drone industry, and as a board member of the Small UAV Coalition, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) is showing its pioneering spirit, according to the coalition's executive director.

Amazon Prime Air is a member of the Small UAV Coalition. (Image source: Amazon)

"Verizon and the other carriers are going to see that there's a huge role for them to play in terms of spectrum and how it can be used, how it will increase command and control," Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, told FierceWirelessTech. "When you're talking about mobile drones in an area, the question is the sense and avoid technology will obviously evolve communications, so I think there are bands of spectrum that will be used not only for testing but also for different drones at all altitudes."

While the Small UAV Coalition is focused on UAVs that fly 500 feet and below, "I don't ever say that I don't care about 60,000 feet, which is where I think we'll find Facebook and Google and a number of companies. And there will be communication needs there as well," he said.

Drobac is among the speakers who will be presenting at InterDrone this week, which is partnering with CTIA to allow Super Mobility 2015 badge holders to get free attendance to the drone conference's exhibit hall at the Rio Hotel. Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, founder of DIYDrones and former editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, is delivering the keynote address at InterDrone.

Wireless operators have an interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) because drone operators are going to want to use their spectrum, and while the government may want to set aside spectrum specifically for drones, "the reality is the existing spectrum will be used for drones and it will be imperative that these companies lead the way in terms of helping to guide drone operators, especially at the commercial level," Drobac said. Unlicensed spectrum is probably adequate for recreational drone users, but "when you're talking about operations at scale for commercial use, like an Amazon delivery system or Google X system, they're going to need to have dedicated spectrum."

The Small UAV Coalition is approaching its first birthday in October, and it doesn't want to wait for 5G standards to come around for drones to be used in the U.S. airspace. The coalition is advocating for law and policy changes to permit the operation of small UAVs beyond line of sight, with varying degrees of autonomy, for commercial, consumer, recreational and philanthropic purposes. Other members include Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) Prime Air, Google X, GoPro, Parrot and 3DR.

Specifically, the divison of Verizon that is a member of the coalition is Verizon Ventures, which says it invests in industry-transforming companies that are ready to benefit from the value of the Verizon ecosystem. Director David Famolari points out that LTE in particular is well suited for drones because UAVs range too far to rely on Wi-Fi alone and transmit too much data to use 3G networks. Not only can UAV devices use LTE networks to deliver sensor data for processing, analysis and decision-making mid-flight, but they can also use LTE to receive command-and-control inputs in real-time as well.

"Flight coordinates could be delivered over the network to dynamically update flight plans, reroute missions, and clear airspace when necessary," according to Famolari's blog. "LTE connectivity gives UAV operators real-time visibility beyond the line of sight, allowing them to better manage their fleets, track aircraft, and run more efficient operations. Simply put, UAVs connected to an LTE network will be safer, more reliable stewards of shared airspace."

The drone industry may also share a fear that the wireless industry had years ago as states try to start regulating the industry rather than having it done at the federal level. California especially is keeping the UAV Coalition busy; the coalition has been urging California Gov. Jerry Brown to veto California Senate Bill 142, which requires express permission to fly small unmanned aircraft over all public and private property.

"The problem is this thing has really been bungled by the federal government and by state governments now so that even companies that are interested in seeing if they've got it right, it's been very difficult to do so because they've been so stifled," Drobac said. 

"Nobody in the industry is suggesting they are ready to do delivery or to do massive scale use of UAVs or drones until they know they can do it safely, and yet the ... ability to test some of this stuff is very difficult because of the prohibition on commercial use at the federal level,"  he said. "It's one of those things where it's a very difficult position to be in, to not be able to test," without getting permission or paying fees to the FAA to test at one of their 'six' UAV test sites even though now there's no geography tied to them anymore.

At some point, it makes sense for Amazon to negotiate with wireless operators that pay for spectrum licenses in order to deploy its Amazon Prime Air. "We're not there yet and it's not because we won't be there, it's just to the extent that we're in a very... this is so nascent in terms of the discussions largely because we've been dealing with a government that's been unwilling to look at what's at stake here."

The government has acknowledged the potential for UAVs to save lives -- they can also prevent deaths due to falls from cell tower inspections. "If the government would get out of the way or would lead constructively, we'd be in a wonderful position right now," Drobac said. "But what we have now is government saying nothing." There was supposed to be a commercial rule finalized by September 2015, which the FAA already has said it won't have it done, he added.

The Small UAV Coalition submitted comments to the FCC last week urging it to move quickly to ensure spectrum is available to support the range of communications functions that are critical to UAS. Among other things, the coalition wants the FCC to permit flexible Aeronautical Mobile Service (AMS) to use spectrum in the 5925-6700 MHz band by manned and unmanned aircraft and not limit use to Aeronautical Mobile Telemetry (AMT) for flight testing. 

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