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FCC suggests licensing 5GHz spectrum to drone operators

What's the WiFly password again?

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering opening a swath of 5GHz spectrum up for use by the growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles and drones.


"It is past time that we assess the availability of wireless communications resources for the increasingly important remote-piloted aircraft activity we rely on today," FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

According to the FCC most drones operate under unlicensed and low-power wireless communications rules. By unlicensed spectrum, the FCC is likely referring to the use of Wi-Fi in what's typically referred to the 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands, since that's what many consumer and professional drones from the likes of DJI operate on.

Wait, isn't 5GHz Wi-Fi?

Because this spectrum is unlicensed, anyone is free to broadcast on those airwaves without special permissions. And as anyone who lives in a dense urban environment or an apartment or dorm knows, too many wireless access points or routers — especially newer ones using 80MHz or 160MHz channel widths to maximize throughput — makes for a lot of interference and thus dodgy Wi-Fi.

The range of spectrum proposed for use by UAVs and drones is rather narrow, occupying just 61MHz between 5030MHz and 5091MHz. This is well below the range used by 5GHz Wi-Fi in the US and most other countries, which starts as low as 5.15GHz.

For those wondering there's also little risk of overlap from neighboring channels. While the FCC has allowed the use of neighboring channels since 2014, they've limited the maximum channel width — how much spectrum is used — to prevent any bleed over into licensed spectrum.

The proposed spectrum is also low enough that interference from C-band communications shouldn't be an issue either. Wi-Fi isn't the only technology that operates on the 5GHz spectrum. Satellite communications and even doppler weather and military radars also operate in this range. This is why a big chunk of the 5GHz channels are hidden on most consumer access points and wireless routers, but can be enabled on enterprise APs equipped to deal with this interference.

In theory, moving drones to their own dedicated, licensed slice of the 5GHz spectrum, the proposed FCC rule change should reduce the likelihood of a drone being downed by interference from Wi-Fi and other sources.

Clearing the airwaves for takeoff

"The FCC must ensure that our spectrum rules meet the current – and future – spectrum needs of evolving technologies such as unmanned aircraft systems, which can be critical to disaster recovery, first responder rescue efforts, and wildfire management," Rosenworcel said. "I thank our colleagues at NTIA and FAA for their engagement on this proceeding, and I look forward to building a strong public record for this rulemaking."

Commercial use of drones has taken off in recent years. Just last week online souk Amazon got the go-ahead to begin drone deliveries in Lockeford, California. and College Station, Texas. Meanwhile, Google drone delivery division, Wing, claims to have clocked more than 100,000 flights, many making deliveries in Australia, Finland and the US.

With the use of drones only expected to increase over the next few years, the FCC is also evaluating other ways to improve the reliability of their operations. In addition to seeking comment on the use of 5GHz spectrum by drones, the commission is also seeking guidance on whether the various flexible use spectrum bands are sufficient to ensure "co-existence of terrestrial mobile operations."

This includes a proposal that would allow drone operators to obtain a license to use the aeronautical VHF band used for communication with air traffic control and other aircraft. ®

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