IoE

Do drones dream of electric sheep?

Innovate or die. Communications service providers have been hearing that mantra for a while now, and Vodafone is taking it to heart by championing a TM Forum Catalyst proof-of-concept project that aims to demonstrate how to deliver drones as a service.

The Catalyst, which is operating under the moniker Do drones dream of electric sheep? – a play on the Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – 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.

Using drones in the field

This year almost half of all drone sales will be for agricultural use, according to Juniper Research. Farmers are using them to monitor their fields and livestock, for example. High-quality video shot by a drone can show farmers how all their crops or livestock are doing at a given point in time without requiring the farmer to traverse the fields. This not only saves time and money for the farmer but also has important benefits for the environment and society as well.

Today farmers typically blanket crops with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides whether they’re all infested with a particular pest or not. Using high-quality drone imaging, farmers can examine their crops remotely and decide precisely where to spray chemicals.

“There’s a very positive social benefit with precision farming,” says Dr. Lester Thomas, Chief Systems Architect, Vodafone Group. “It’s eco-friendly; you’re reducing chemical usage; and you’re increasing the yield of crops.”

A win-win opportunity

It’s also an innovative revenue opportunity for network operators. While some farmers are already using drone technology, Vodafone wants to take it step further, automating drone flights as a platform-based service that uses 5G network slicing to ensure redundancy and quality of service.

“Today some farmers have such systems in place but there is a human responsible for the flight,” Thomas explains. This is not necessarily the farmer but could be someone they have contracted with to fly the drones.

“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,” he adds.

For safety purposes, most countries enforce regulations requiring that drones be flown within the line of sight of the operator. There are also other regulations – the height at which they can fly or restrictions about flying over crowds, for example. Using 5G would enable automation backed by service guarantees – the drone would be in contact with multiple base stations or cell towers and intelligently decide which to use to ensure continuity of service.

“If you’re going to offer a completely automated service, you can’t have best-effort 4G connectivity where the signal is not guaranteed; you need the enhanced reliability of 5G,” Thomas says.

Applying lessons learned

This Catalyst project is a continuation of previous network functions virtualization and software-defined networking proofs of concept (PoCs) Vodafone has sponsored. At Mobile World Congress in February, the company conducted a PoC with Amdocs showing how intent-based, closed-loop management and orchestration can be used to automatically scale and self-heal networks.

During that demonstration an orchestrator used analytics and policy to make configuration changes automatically in response to increased demand. Then when demand dropped off again, the orchestrator switched back to the smallest possible configuration. The PoC also demonstrated a denial of service (DOS) attack where orchestration was used to move traffic to a different network architecture that had a DOS firewall in the loop.

“While the attack was going on, we had these extra resources to ensure that customer service was still being delivered – the intent was guaranteed,” Thomas says. “But when it was finished it went back to using the minimum amount of resource. So essentially we had a service that was able to defend itself against attack even though most of the time it was using zero resources for that. It just knew how to handle it if and when it happened.”

At TM Forum Live! 2016 in May, Vodafone worked with several suppliers to take the PoC a step further as part of a Catalyst project called Open cloud ecosystem for SMEs (small and medium enterprises). In this case, TM Forum’s Ordering, Catalog and Onboarding application program interfaces (APIs) were added to orchestration, allowing partners to onboard their own applications automatically and SME customers to order online through a self-service portal. Participants included Huawei supplying the orchestration system and acting as project manager; Centina providing service assurance; Apigee (now part of Google) providing an API gateway; Infosys acting as a systems integrator; and InverCloud, which built the customer-facing portal.

The team is now looking to add a drone manufacturer to the project and plans to participate in TM Forum’s Innovation InFocus in Dallas, where it will discuss the concept. An actual demonstration of drones as a service is planned for TM Forum Live! 2017.

Watch Huawei’s Derek Collins explain what this phase of the Catalyst hopes to demonstrate:

Provider as customer?

Another use case the team is pursuing is using drones for industrial inspection, for example inspecting electricity or cell phone towers. Traditionally power companies and mobile operators have sent workers to climb towers for inspection or in some cases they have used helicopters. Now they’re beginning to use drones, and Vodafone would like to test the concept of using 5G network slicing to automate the process and deliver it as a service.

“For Nice we may show a use case using drones to inspect a Vodafone cell tower – that’s drinking our own champagne,” says Thomas, whose interest in drones goes beyond his day job. He also builds his own UAVs and has a pilot’s license. “There’s quite a big open source community around drones and I enjoy building my own models,” he says.

The sky’s the limit

This phase of the Catalyst project likely won’t be the last. Eventually, Thomas says, Vodafone would like to be able to demonstrate automated air traffic control for drones using 5G. Some companies have already developed the technology to control drones beyond an operator’s line of sight and Vodafone would like to work with them. In the US, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration gave permission this summer to a company called PrecisionHawk to fly drones autonomously.

“They built an air traffic control mechanism so that the drones’ flights are coordinated to avoid general aviation traffic,” Thomas explains. “We’d like to link a company like that into our network and host it as a service.”

Another possibility is demonstrating how to use cell towers as recharging stations.

“If ever we’re going to have truly cross-country flights for drones, they will need to be recharged,” Thomas says. “We’ve already got a network of high towers. You could put a landing pad on top and have a recharging station.”

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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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