The Future of Drones – Beyond Visual Line of Sight

By Mark Andrews, Soliton Systems, Live Streaming Consultant

As drones become almost ubiquitous in their usage for law enforcement and other public agencies, what advances are likely to come with their continued deployment?

Drones and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are used for a variety of operational or situation awareness applications from evidence gathering, looking for missing persons, coordinating rescues, surveillance, and crowd control. Monitoring with drones is often used as a low-cost replacement for helicopters.

Outside of public safety drones are also heavily used in other industrial applications, for example in the energy industry they are used for inspection of powerlines, pipelines and windmills and in agriculture they are utilized for measuring the health of plants on large farms.

The one major restriction of drones currently is that they must be with the eyesight of the operator, restricting how far a drone can travel and restricting how effective a tool it can be, for example with border control and the potential thousands of kilometers that is required for coverage from a single location. But with so much adoption of drones across many industries, it is only natural that they will move onto the next generation of evolvement – in this case drones that can fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

One of the major considerations for utilizing BVLOS is the issue of safety and the risk of collision with other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), aircraft, buildings, and even trees. There are many initiatives being worked on to address this. Flying commercial drones is highly regulated, especially when it comes to even allowing companies who want to develop BVLOS drones being given permission to test. These regulatory authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EUASA), with the guidance of The Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre, are responsible for issuing permits to develop BVLOS drones in tightly controlled environments. The majority of permit requests for the BVLOS to the FAA are currently rejected.

BVLOS of drones is not new, Amazon have spent a small fortune since 2012 in developing delivery drones and the military has been using UAVs for many years for surveillance and delivering ordnance. The big difference is that these drones are used for payloads with differing requirements – BVLOS for border control ideally need a real-time “eye-in-the-sky” for monitoring, surveillance and evidence gathering though these requirements are expected to evolve.

How do we make BVLOS drones safe to operate from a remote teleoperations center?

One strategy is the BVLOS Sense and Avoid. This is a detect and avoid system, also known as sense-and-avoid, where drones can detect obstacles and then make rapid adjustments to their flight plan to avoid a collision. Collison avoidance technologies such as LiDar, acoustic sense & avoid , ultra-low latency live video, and radar are all technologies that are being developed. These outputs from the drone can be used by AI technology, either locally or remotely, to automatically detect and avoid obstacles.

A second technological breakthrough with a BVLOS drone is to have a flight view of the onboard camera that can be used for real time manual navigation from a remote location. This allows the drone to be manually flown from a faraway position which would open a whole range of new possibilities for the use of drones. New technology with ultra-low latency that can live stream over multiple cellular networks while controlling the drone from a remote location is changing how drones can be used effectively in the fight against illegal border crossing.

In both cases security is paramount – any chance of a hacker either controlling the drone or intercepting the live stream must be mitigated against.

What are the applications for BVLOS?

The possibility of BVLOS drones is going beyond how drones are used today. Imagine the border control agents being able to monitor vast areas of country without the need for regular relocation. The ability to implement a missing person search or a mountain rescue can be much more effective with BVLOS then they are today with line of sight drones.

It is expected that once firmer regulations are enacted, the market will continue to open to new players and applications with BVLOS drones becoming routine. It is expected a new sky control system, or an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system, an air traffic control equivalent for drones, will be put into service that will ensure drones and UAV’s can interact and operate safely, especially over busy cities. This will include a range of exciting new possibilities such as urban air mobility (UAM). UAM will include vehicles like air taxis, which can revolutionize travel and will advance enormously how taxi services are operating today. UAM vehicles will have practical applications with point-to-point low-altitude air-travel, such as lowering the time of commutes, journeys to airports. It will also allow the delivery of emergency personnel and first responders into areas that are difficult to access, either through natural disaster or war, and then using the same drone technology, it will evacuate people and onto hospital as required.

Initiatives such as Fast Forward 2020 is a three-year collaborative research project that will develop a new Urban Air Mobility (UAM) ecosystem to demonstrate safe drone deployment in urban cities and its integration into Smart City infrastructure with the feedback utilized to create the necessary regulations. With many companies and universities involved, researchers are looking at technology beyond current levels including the implementation of new 6G infrastructures. Such initiatives really demonstrate how much is yet to be done and the growth-potential there is within the drone industry.

Live Streaming with Drones

A major element of BVLOS technology is the live stream from the onboard camera for remote control. These cameras typically have low levels of power and high reliability, but importantly they require an ultra low latency connection from the drone to its remote operator. And by low latency BVLOS datalinks would ideally need to perform below 100ms end-to-end. This must include all the video encoding and decoding that is normally a part of the process of any live video stream.

Typical latency for streaming is over a second, and with satellite connected drones this can be multiple seconds and the video can be compromised. Having latency below 100ms, especially for an untethered device such as a BVLOS drone, that would normally rely on either cellular or satellite communication, is especially challenging. RF (radio frequency) is another form of communication that has a low delay but relies on line-of-sight which becomes impractical with BVLOS drones.

The live streams generated from the drone are also used as real-time surveillance. The ability to capture video in ultra high definition (UHD) offers a new range of surveillance applications where AI is utilized for video surveillance to spot anomalies over vast areas.

Ideally drones can fly autonomously with data gathered from onboard instruments and sensors. Typically, these UAVs have long-range telemetry, as well as a command-and-control link with the user ground control station. It is using these secure data IP links that an encrypted live stream and return remote control can be sent and received.

With both the FAA and the EUASA already allowing some restricted BVLOS operations to take place, albeit in very specific and regulated circumstances, as technology evolves further it is expected that this industry will evolve quickly. The sights of drones carrying passengers flying over our heads, as often seen in futuristic science fiction movies, could arrive quicker than you think.