Is Satellite Communication in the future of Drones
In 2016, a team of innovators in Europe sought to find out if it were possible to use satellite communications to safely and securely control a drone from a distance beyond visual line of sight.
The demonstration took place at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire and the goal was to verify the use this type of communication for drones as part of a feasibility study named “Intelligent Parcel Delivery“. The study was supported by the European Space Agency and the satellite company. The team was aiming for the eventual establishment of a drone delivery service together with ground transportation. The lead company, Head Communications, in The Netherlands, designed, built and patented the Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) data link used for long range communication systems and traffic management solutions for drones, autonomous vehicles, and watercraft.
In order to perform this evaluation, the team kitted a hybrid, vertical take off (VTOL) drone with the BLOS data link using L-Band satellite and serving as a smart modem for the drone, sensors and accessories. The on-board high precision sensors were designed to capture very high-granular data such as temperature, altitude, airspeed, linear and angular acceleration, magnetic compass, fuel, controller status captured every few hundred milliseconds. The BLOS was used to encode the data and send it through the satellite network while the drone was flown a total of 2 hours in unfavourable weather conditions with light rain and overcast. During the 4 trials, high-volume data was sent measuring the aircraft navigation, flight performance, conditions, and fuel consumption. This was done to evaluate the overall use of satellite communications combined with other wireless communications on-board a drone.
In short, the trials and evaluations revealed several important aspects in the commercial use of drones:
- Answered the questions if L-band satellite communications is suitable for both payload sensor data and control and telemetry data. By using the BLOS device on-board the drone, the data was compressed to as little as 4% with 100% fidelity allowing a large volume of data to be sent in one login session.
- Insight into the risks and operating best practices of drones using SATCOM. Satellite communications has certain limitations in poor weather conditions and in areas where there is a high degree of EMI.
- Flight performance and operating limitations using SATCOM. 3-axis flight manoeuvre limitations, climbs and descents, future procedures for departure and arrival around obstacles and buildings were considered.
- Command and control design consideration.
- Service life-cycle needs concerning airtime, upgrades, maintenance, OEM and 3rd party suppliers and providers
- Several others which will be incorporated in the future IPD service
After the evaluation, several recommendations were made including advancements and adjustments of the drone the design, installation of the BLOS in the drones, use of L-Band satellite internal and external antennas with other forms of communications, best flight operating procedures, incident handling, how to best provide communications to air traffic control and other stakeholders, and others were noted. Instructions from these finding will be used in the full demonstration implementation and ensuing service development worldwide. The next step is the certification and implementation into regular service using drones.
The L-Band Satellite communications proof of concept within the Intelligent Parcel Delivery Feasibility Study paved the way for use of this form of SATCOM in regular commercial drone services. Best practices include those for manufacturing, operations and commercial aspects.