How drones might revolutionize ad-hoc telecoms

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US Air Force handout image of a Predator drone
US Air Force handout image of a Predator drone

The mention of the word drone conjures images of missile-carrying unmanned aircraft on a mission to bomb the lights out of a terrorist cave in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Unfortunately this is how most of us came to know about them; as weapons. However, these unmanned remote-controlled aircraft are now finding application in many areas such civilian and wildlife surveillance, agriculture and GIS.

Other than long-term communication networks, there also exists many short-term and ad-hoc networks that are created and destroyed on a as-when-needed basis, a good example is the outside broadcasting of live events such as sports, national events, concerts and disasters. The list of ad-hoc telecoms networks is endless.

Satellite capacity

Satellite news gathering   and Outside Broadcast (OB) vans at an event
Satellite news gathering and Outside Broadcast (OB) vans at an event

At the moment, nearly all news collecting organizations have signed contracts with satellite operators to lease either BSS or FSS satellite capacity for their live video links from remote locations. With normal SD video requiring about 9 MHz and HD requiring about 18 MHz of non-inclined orbit satellite capacity, the cost of one SD  feed is about 2 Million shillings a month, considering that the link is not in use all the time, the per-use costs associated with provision of multiple satellite based video links can be huge for a large news gathering organization. Whereas this cost might be insignificant to the likes of Fox and CNN, it cannot be absorbed easily by smaller news gathering organizations like those found in Kenya. The fact that Satellite capacity lease contracts are usually long-term (3 years and above), such an undertaking can easily spell doom for a corporation that is not careful when signing the dotted line.

The other alternative is the use of UHF line of sight point to point links. these are however limited by the following facts:

  1. They suffer heavy attenuation over long distances making them useful for short hops (say from Nyayo stadium to CBD).
  2. Even with the use of high-powered UHF transmitters to enable the transmission of the signal over longer distances, the earths curvature means that if you transmit from the top of an outside broadcasting van parallel to the ground in the vicinity, the signal will end up in the sky after a long distance, a tall mast  or several repeater stations are therefore required to target the signal downwards. The many radio repeater stations along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway that were used before fiber optics were there more because of the earths curvature than to amplify the signal.
Drawing A showing how a signal originally transmitted tangentially to the earths surface ends up in the sky because of the earths curvature. Drawing B shows how the use of repeater tower stations along the way can help ‘bend’ the signal.

Because of the random locations from which news happens, a fixed network cannot be economically used for the transmission of live news and events. The news and events happen anywhere any day any time. a versatile network is therefore needed and at the moment only Satellite can offer this versatility. Fixed networks also become unavailable in case of disasters such as floods and earth quakes and wars.

Enter the Drones

The fact that a drone is steerable within the atmosphere means that it can be flown to any location and with the aid of gyro-stabilizers, park them in air and be used as telecommunication facilities to receive regenerate, amplify and transmit onward a signal from users. compared to satellites, drones can offer the following advantages:

  • They can be steered to any location to offer a line of sight to any user/OB van or if they are equipped with high zoom cameras, they can be used to gather news without the need of a human camera operator on the ground, this can be useful especially in disasters, war zones and in daily events like road traffic monitoring.
  • The drones, by virtue of them being easy to deploy, can be effective in providing communication in areas that have been cut-off from telecom networks such as earth quake and flood areas, a drone can provide GSM and Wi-Fi connectivity to a large area without the need of setting up terrestrial networks.
  • The fact that a drone can land back to earth unlike a satellite spacecraft, drones can be re-fueled and repaired and used countless number of times unlike satellites. They can be easily reconfigured for different tasks, the same drone unit might gather news, offer Wi-Fi to a disaster zone, relay signals and do aerial cartography by simply re-configuring it for each task.
  • The ad-hoc nature  and speed in which the drones can set up and tear down networks will considerably lower the cost of using drones for telecommunication purposes as a drone can be re-deployed many times for different missions. A While back Safaricom had to tow along a mini BTS and satellite dish to provide GSM coverage for the Lewa marathon, all they will need is to deploy one drone on the event day and provide GSM coverage for the even.
  • Their proximity to the earth means that they can use unlicensed spectrum making it cheaper to communicate.
  • They do not need long-term commitment to start using them, getting satellite capacity from an operator can take upwards of 3 months and the shorter the contract period the more expensive the capacity.

Regulatory framework

There will however be the need for a stringent regulatory framework on:

  • Who can be a licensed drone owner/operator.
  • For what purposes will the drones be used? Situations of drones infringing on privacy can be common if not checked. Imagine a drone trailing and photographing a cheating spouse in his/her escapades. 🙂
  • Airspace control and navigation guidelines to avoid drones colliding with buildings, airplanes or other drones.
  • Designated no fly zones for camera equipped drones such as residential areas, military barracks etc.

I believe, if well implemented, the use of drones can revolutionize telecommunications especially the creation and tearing down of ad-hoc networks.

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