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We're bringing commercial drone flights one step closer

It is still somewhat hard to imagine, a sky full of drones. Jacob Groote, responsible for Innovation & Partnerships at KPN, is convinced that commercial drones will really take off in the coming years. “The market is increasingly ready for it and a lot of work is going on behind the scenes on promising applications. KPN will be part of this too in the years ahead, with initiatives including the introduction of a connectivity route planner for drone flights. This brings the commercial application of drones one step closer.”

When do you expect drones to make a commercial breakthrough?

“The application of drones in business processes can be of considerable benefit to companies and organizations. Our customers have been able to experience that in our field labs in the last few years. Examples include the use of fewer pesticides in potato cultivation, package delivery to ships, urgent transport of blood, medicine and other medical supplies or the use of drones as an extra pair of eyes to detect drowning persons at sea. So the question is not whether commercial drones are going to make a breakthrough but when. But the ‘when’ is a little difficult to forecast.”

What is so difficult about it?

“The number of drones and unmanned aircrafts has more than doubled in the Netherlands since 2015, but the air space is not yet organized and controlled. That is crucial in order to make commercial drones possible. So a lot needs to happen, because we’re not yet ready for it in many areas, including legislation and regulations. We at KPN are also making steps in the right direction by making our mobile network suitable for drones before the end of this year. Our connectivity will remove another of the barriers, allowing drones to eventually fly safely and controllably from A to B.”

So is KPN going to make its mobile network suitable for the use of drones?

“We are presently working on a new service, which we hope to make available this year and which will bring commercial drone flights one step closer. This service will be able to give automated information about the range of our mobile network for a proposed flight path. This will make drone flights safer and more efficient as the drone is always accessible via the mobile network, which helps the drone pilot.”

“Providing automated information about the range of our mobile network for a particular flight path will allow flights to be made safely and efficiently”

“Our mobile network is geared up to provide good coverage throughout the Netherlands: roughly 99.4% of the country is within our range. But that relates only to ground level, where all the users and devices are to be found. As drones are going to fly at altitude, it is also important to know what the coverage is like in the air.”

So a sort of route planner for drones?

“Exactly, this is a service that gives information about the quality of the network coverage on the expected flight path. It allows the flight to be prepared and adapted in line with the need for connectivity. And that’s essential, because a drone has to remain controllable at all times, so a network connection is indispensable. The more drones there are in the sky, the stricter the requirements will become. In particular, to prevent accidents from occurring. It’s essential so that a drone can be flown safely.”

Controlling drones via the KPN network?

“You can use the mobile network for flights where the drone needs to be controlled from outside the pilot’s field of vision. But other applications are conceivable too, such as transmitting data during the flight. And 5G connectivity is essential in order to be able to process and transmit high resolution camera images in real time during the flight. Additionally, with 5G we can make sure that priority is given to the mobile data of the drone, even if the network gets busier. This is vital for emergency services or during critical processes. You could compare it with a freeway: if there’s a lot of traffic, you can get a traffic jam that makes everyone drive more slowly. With 5G we can keep a lane free for data traffic, for emergency services for example.”

Are there any other challenges?

“Definitely, not so much in terms of technology but more in the domain of how to deploy and utilize the applications. How can we ensure that businesses benefit from it? That’s a crucial point and KPN has gained a lot of experience in it in recent years, at numerous organizations in many dozens of drone issues. So we know how, with the right use of drones, you can optimize business processes, improve the customer experience and develop completely new business models.”

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