SINGAPORE: Researchers from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and telco M1 are studying how drones could be flown on mobile phone networks.
This could allow them to be securely used for activities like surveillance, inspection and delivery, and would also allow them to fly higher and further away.
NTU and M1 signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Thursday (Dec 7) to develop the telco's 4.5G network for drone traffic management in Singapore, following successful trials at International Business Park and two fields in Wan Shih Road and Old Holland Road.
Drones currently flown on traditional radio signals - using the unlicensed 2.4GHz band - could suffer from interference, have a shorter range and could also be susceptible to hacking. They also have a lower flight ceiling of about 61 metres.
Operating drones on 4.5G networks could allow the sending of measurement data during flights in real-time while their exact locations in the air are monitored.
Using heterogeneous network technology, these drones can also switch to a 4G or 3G network, should 4.5G be unavailable. This can be done up to a height of 130 metres and could allow drones to be flown even out of their operator's line of sight.
The NTU-M1 project is expected to last three years, with M1 providing network and engineering expertise and NTU providing expertise in traffic management of unmanned aerial systems.
The project involves testing the telco's network coverage, as well as mapping which parts of Singapore’s airspace are safe for drone flight.
"Traditionally telcos optimise their network for terrestrial vehicles, because we use our smartphones in cars, in public transport, as well as for indoors," said Dennis Seek, M1's chief technical officer. "Now M1 has also optimised above-ground use cases - in this case for drones."
"We have actively mapped out the network performance at different altitudes above ground level," he added. "All these will be fed into NTU's modelling tools, and that will help us to do air traffic management of unmanned air vehicles."
Researchers hope that findings from the collaboration could also provide insight for unmanned operations using future 5G networks, which would allow faster and more reliable communication.
The project is led by Professor Low Kin Huat from NTU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Mohamed Faisal Mohamed Salleh, a senior research fellow at the university’s Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI).
Their work builds on previous research by the institute on ways to allow hundreds of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to fly efficiently and safely in Singapore's airspace at any one time.
"In two years, we want to be able to cover the whole of Singapore so that we can allow people to do different jobs, in different areas," said Prof Low. "We need to strengthen our simulation models to optimise it so that we can apply it to many applications."
He added that these findings would also help refine the ATMRI's work, and that the institute and M1 would test out the effects of different areas and terrain on network performance.
Other telcos told Channel NewsAsia that they were also exploring ways to integrate the use of drones with mobile technology.
StarHub said it was working with Nokia on possibly using drones to expand mobile coverage during large-scale events and emergencies.
“As part of our trials, we are finding solutions to hurdles such as limited flight times and geographical restrictions," said StarHub’s chief technology officer Chong Siew Loong.
Singtel said it was looking into ways to support aerial drones using heterogeneous network technology.
It is also studying the use of massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) systems, which employ multiple transmitters to communicate with many devices at once to maximise efficiency with minimal errors.