Vodafone Begins Drone-Tracking Trials to Protect Aircraft and Civilians From Accidents

21 February 2018

With the rise of drone use globally, there are already numerous incidents where consumers fly their aircraft too close to sensitive locations such as airports, military bases or other areas where drones just shouldn’t be.

Globally, legislation is mixed about how to deal with the issue, with some countries requiring drone owners to register their devices in case they fly too close to sensitive areas or cause an accident of some nature. Last year, the U.K. government established such a law and also an expansion of geo-fencing to act as an invisible shield to prevent drones from entering restricted space. Canada also established new rules for drones limiting how far and high they can travel.

Now, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world is beginning trials for what it claims will be the first air traffic control drone-tracking and safety technology. Using 4G internet of things (IoT) technology, Vodafone will help protect aircraft from accidents as well as prevent criminal or inadvertent drone incursions into sensitive locations.

According to research from Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR), drones will log more than 250 million flying hours per year over densely populated areas in the European Union by 2050. This is seven times the annual flying hours of conventional crewed aircraft, the project says.

Currently, civilian drones are too small to be tracked by conventional radar, part of the reason ISIS used the devices to conduct terrorism raids in the Middle East. Drones have also been used for such purposes as drug smuggling, delivering contraband to prisoners and to disrupt aircraft.

Vodafone says its drone-tracking trials will support the initiatives of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is developing pan-European rules to regulate the operation of drones.

Vodafone says in addition to helping protect civilians and aircraft, the technology will give the European Union the opportunity to become the global innovator in drone safety operation.

The technology uses a radio positioning system (RPS) for drones and 4G modem and SIM embedded within each drone for:

  • Real-time tracking of each drone by operators and authorized bodies such as air traffic control.
  • Beyond line-of-sight control by the operator reducing the risk of accidental incursions when they lose sight of a drone.
  • Protective geofencing with drones programmed to land automatically or return to the operator when reaching an exclusion zone.
  • Emergency remote control intervention for authorities given control to override a drone operator’s control and alter the flight of a drone’s path.
  • SIM-based e-identification and owner registration.

The RPS is combined with artificial intelligence algorithms to enable very large numbers of drones to be tracked and controlled remotely. Vodafone says it placed its RPS research and intellectual property in the public domain with no licensing fees for reuse in order to accelerate the pace of drone safety and geolocation innovation worldwide.

The first trial began in late 2017 in Spain, and further trials are now scheduled in Spain and Germany through 2018 with the hopes of making the drone-tracking technology available for commercial use beginning in 2019.

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