Vodafone's drone tracker system intrigues but stays short on detail

Network strategy head reveals more in interview

+Comment Vodafone's 4G drone tracking system is not a full control platform but it can help serve up "connectivity, command and control, and telemetry," the mobile operator's Santiago Tenorio Sanz told The Register.

The system, which has aroused great interest within the drone community, is based on 4G radios and the addition of a modem to drones, as we reported earlier this year.

"The idea came up five years ago, it was nothing to do with drones," said Sanz, Vodafone's head of network strategy and architecture. "It was to develop a system with GPS-like accuracy without draining the battery or using active signalling."

From that, he explained, grew the thought of putting this object tracking system on drones, potentially tapping into an industry governments are bound to want to regulate sooner rather than later.

"We don't do software for aerospace control. We provide connectivity, command and control, telemetry," Sanz added. Vodafone's system works in two ways: it provides "a real-time feed to cross-check" other tracking methods, and, said Sanz, it can also act as a conduit for command-and-control signals. The command and control signals could, he suggested "be sent to a local control centre" or even be routed via a State regulator depending on "whatever regulations exist".

Sanz predicted that the system would gain greatest acceptance from those looking for an independent means of tracking drones – for example, commercial operators, perhaps looking ahead to a future of drone deliveries, or aerospace regulators wanting to keep an eye on their skies. We did question whether Vodafone's system's advertised accuracy of 50 metres was good enough for this, to which he said: "It'll get there."

A public live test of the system took place earlier this year with a remote-controlled drone flight between Barcelona and Seville, Spain, Sanz told us, adding that members of the public were able to view video footage streamed from the drone during its 500 mile flight.

Even though he conceded that the system's 50-metre accuracy is "not enough to avoid collisions", Sanz was adamant that the system, which he said was still "getting there", is adequate for geofencing. This is the practice of imposing a software-defined no-fly zone around particular areas – for example, prisons, sports stadiums and other areas that governments decree are unsuitable for people to fly their drones over.

Through bolts and bars to the stars

On a large scale with aeroplane-sized drones, he may well be right; the sort of aircraft, manned or otherwise, that are capable of flying 500 miles are also the sort which could make use of this system without worrying that the 50-metre precision isn't sufficiently accurate, though El Reg wonders whether the vertical range of LTE-based mobile phone networks would be enough to reach typical aircraft operating heights. One potential use case could include the upcoming EU Aviation Network, intended for providing cheap in-flight Wi-Fi for airline passengers crossing the political bloc's skies.

Whatever the use cases, the system as proposed by Vodafone still seems to be in its early days. Doubtless as time goes on and more potential customers talk to Voda, the offering will be refined to suit - but for now, we suspect the main interest will be technical. ®

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