Features and Analysis

Attack of the 5G-enabled drones: Getting them off the ground

For mobile operators, 5G offers the exciting promise of being able to slice the network to accommodate a wide range of applications with very different reliability and throughput requirements, but there are some management challenges to address before it can take off. Dawn Bushaus looks at the progress so far.

If you can use 5G network slicing to enable drones as a service, you can deliver pretty much anything as a service. That’s how Dr. Lester Thomas, Chief Systems Architect, Vodafone Group, sees it.

The company is championing an ongoing TM Forum Catalyst proof-of-concept project, now called ZOOM platform for IoT and anything as a service, which is working on 5G slicing for internet of things (IoT) applications, including offering unmanned aerial vehicles (often referred to as UAVs or simply drones) as a service for precision farming.

“We’ve chosen drones because it’s a crazy application,” Thomas says. “If I can demonstrate 5G slicing for drones, I can certainly demonstrate it works for other things like smart meters, smart cities and digital health.”

Vodafone’s platform model is one the company has been working on as part of the Catalyst program and TM Forum’s Zero-touch Orchestration, Operations and Management (ZOOM) project. Thomas serves as ZOOM’s co-leader.

The anything-as-a-service Catalyst is a continuation of previous proofs of concept, including one outside
TM Forum, that have shown:

  • how intent-based, closed-loop management and orchestration can be used to automatically scale and self-heal networks;
  • how TM Forum’s Ordering, Catalog and Onboarding application program interfaces (APIs) can be added to orchestration to allow partners to onboard their own applications automatically; and
  • how small and medium enterprise customers can order services online through a self-service portal.

What’s possible?

At TM Forum Live! 2017 in May, the team will add 5G slicing to show how to automate drone flights as a platform-based service, ensuring redundancy and quality of service.

“With a 5G network you could get ultra-high levels of reliability and therefore remove the need to have a human operator within line of sight,” Thomas explains.

That’s the promise of 5G network slicing – being able to accommodate very different types of traffic from ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (uRLLC) applications like drones to massive machine-type communications (mMTC), such as a vast, low-power network of IoT sensors (see infographic below).

“What makes 5G interesting is the fact that various use cases will need to be delivered on the same network with very different impacts on the way network resources will be consumed,” says Laurent Leboucher, Vice President of APIs & Ecosystems, Orange, and Chairman of TM Forum’s Collaboration Subcommittee. “From heavy throughput 4k video streamed to mobile users to real-time, low-latency information exchanged by autonomous vehicles, the cost per bit will be very different. This differentiation will need to be managed from an end-to-end perspective.”

That’s different from how management is handled in today’s mobile networks, where operators deliver a fixed set of services with service chains that essentially are defined by a specific standard (4G LTE, for example). These service chains are static and don’t require end-to-end orchestration. But in 5G they will not be static.

Slicing up radio access

Operators can already create network slices in a virtualized 4G mobile core, but 5G adds the capability in the radio access portion of the network. This makes it possible to create a slice at the edge for a low-power application where sensors have limited battery power or for a very low-latency, high bandwidth application like augmented reality.

Today there are more questions than answers about how to manage these mixed workloads on a shared infrastructure but operators are working together to address them.

Deutsche Telekom and China Mobile, for example, are participating in a project called Zero Touch NSM to analyze and evaluate network and service management challenges. The three-month project will run from March to June 2017.

Automation is the future

“Automation is the future of network management,” Dr. Kim Kyllesbech Larsen, Senior Vice President, Technology Economics & Transformation, Deutsche Telekom, said in a press release about the project. “As an industry, it is essential that we come together to find a solution to the issues that are hindering the automation of operations and network and service management functionalities.”

And as part of a new TM Forum Catalyst project called 5G service operations, AT&T, Orange, Telecom Italia and Telenor are considering how to deliver network as a service with a wide range of service level agreement characteristics based on 5G and existing technologies.

“I think where were headed is that you’ll have an operations responsibility within the service provider’s organization where one group is responsible for service types and another is responsible for efficient use of the infrastructure,” says Dave Milham, Chief Architect, TM Forum.

Changing the business

This approach requires a change in thinking for telcos, whose operations today are mostly arranged vertically around product groups. They likely will have to organize themselves more horizontally, the way cloud operators do.

Analytics will be key to managing 5G networks because they will predict network usage patterns and ensure quality of service, but this will be difficult because today there is not enough computing power at the edge of the network to perform the analysis.

“One of the challenges is 5G for analytics is that we’ve got these very dense access networks with thousands or tens of thousands of locations, as opposed to before where you maybe had hundreds,” says Kathy Meier-Hellstern, Assistant Vice President of Inventive Science, AT&T Labs. “It will be essential to have real-time analytics to support some of our new services like augmented or virtual reality and tactile internet, because they do rely on having analytics at the edge with fairly decent processing and very low latency.”

Solving issues at the edge

Milham agrees that solving challenges at the edge is crucial.

“In fixed networks, the core has so much capacity it’s hardly worth worrying about it,” he says. “Where the problems arise is in the access network. You may have one cell running both types of communications where uRLL is on the verge of breaking the SLA agreement. We need to figure out what to do when that happens. The finite resource is the bandwidth in the cell.”

Another big challenge involves standards. End-to-end management of 5G networks is going to require standards and agile collaboration among software-development organizations and open source groups. The industry needs to use common information models and metrics to deliver the kinds of services customers are expecting.

Agreeing on standards

“We have so many different standards in the market that are not aligned to each other,” says Klaus Martiny, Senior Program Manager, Deutsche Telekom. “If you look at 5G KPIs [key performance indicators]and how they’re implemented, the name of the KPIs may be the same but how they’re measured is different. “That is not acceptable in the future because if you want to compare technologies and services we need to use the same KPIs.”

He adds: “There is not one SDO in charge to define this KPI end to end. It was possible to do that in a fixed line or mobile network – it was feasible to define a KPI for each. But in the world of convergence, that changes and virtualization makes it much more complex. This kind of discussion is definitely needed.How do we measure the quality? How we do it in a standardized way?”

Check out this article on Inform for more about how standards development bodies like TM Forum and MEF envision cooperating to advance 5G management.

This article appears in Perspectives 2017: Digital transformation opens new markets. Download the full report free


    About The Author

    Managing Editor

    Dawn Bushaus began her career in technology journalism in 1989 at Telephony magazine, which means she’s been writing about networking for a quarter century. (She wishes she didn’t have to admit that because it probably gives you a good idea of how old she really is.) In 1996, Dawn joined a team of journalists to start a McGraw-Hill publication called tele.com, and in 2000, she helped a team at Ziff-Davis launch The Net Economy, where she held senior writing and editing positions. Prior to joining TM Forum, she worked as a freelance analyst for Heavy Reading.

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