Treat drones as 'flying mobile phones': Telstra CTO

Telstra's CTO said the telco could provide mobile connectivity under a 'drone-control-as-service' offering that would resolve regulatory and control concerns surrounding the use of drones.

Telstra CTO Håkan Eriksson has come up with a resolution to all concerns raised over the regulation and control of drones: To treat them as flying mobile phones, and to allow Telstra to provide the necessary connectivity in a "drone-control-as-a-service" offering.

"What if we say every drone is like a flying mobile phone? Put a SIM card in them so they have identity, put the radio in so they can always talk to them, and then if a drone wants to take off it has to talk to a database where we put all the rules," Eriksson said during the annual Telstra Vantage conference in Melbourne on Thursday.

Requirements such as how many drones are allowed to fly in a given area, what height they are allowed to travel at, what hours they are permitted to fly during, and how close they are allowed to be within certain buildings or people could be programmed into this database, Eriksson said.

"If a drone tries to take off outside of those [restrictions], it can't take off because it works with the database ... once you have an identity and connectivity like a mobile phone, you can talk to it, it can talk to a network, you can ask it to land if it has to land, you can prevent it from taking off, you can prevent it from going to certain areas," he explained.

"And then, of course, we can offer that as a service, because we are the best to handle phones. Anything that moves around the mobile network with a SIM card in it, nobody can handle that better than us. This is just a flying mobile phone."

Human certification and drone specification details could also be put into the database, Eriksson, who was appointed as CTO in December, told ZDNet.

"You have to maybe certify ... provided you have a certain certification and you have a drone with these capabilities, then you're allowed to fly it, so you can put all of these rules into the database," he explained.

As well as being able to add regulatory requirements to a drone-control database, treating drones as mobile devices would also solve the line-of-sight problem, Eriksson told ZDNet.

"Today, you use Wi-Fi and you have to fly where you can see the drone ... you can now fly without line of sight [using 4G]," he said, adding that Telstra has been able to control drones flying both interstate and overseas.

"Whilst you're connected to the network, you can fly it anywhere ... except for a little bit more latency, it's not more difficult to fly it in Sydney from Melbourne. Once you can talk directly to the drones, you have to talk to it via the network, then it doesn't really matter where in the network you pop it out."

Concerns about drones getting in the way of aircraft would also be addressed via the use of mobile networks, Eriksson told ZDNet, because coverage only extends to around 150m above ground level.

"The most useful use of drones is up to say maybe 100 metres. There's no point -- if it cannot deliver something, search for somebody, there's no point flying much higher, because that's where you see things. So up to that height, we have pretty good coverage with the mobile network ... and there are no planes there," he explained.

While drones could run off existing 4G and future 5G mobile spectrum, Eriksson told ZDNet it would also be possible to allocate special spectrum where drones need priority in certain cases, or to ensure the network doesn't get overloaded.

According to Eriksson, drones have so many important use cases -- such as inspecting towers, power lines, rooftops, high-rise buildings, railways, pipelines, water tanks, and reservoirs -- that it would be unfortunate to simply ban them without investigating mobile connectivity and control.

"We use drones inside Telstra to do inspection of our mobile towers," he added.

"It means that we can inspect them better, it's safer -- nobody needs to climb the tower to check that the cable is the way it should be, so it's safer -- it saves cost, and we can inspect more towers this way.

"It is a tool that can be used for lots of things to increase productivity in every country, and also in Australia. It can have a part in agriculture, it can have a part in security, search and rescue, construction management, inspections, surveys, delivering. Lots of different use cases."

Eriksson said Telstra is already working on various drone cases in Australia, including the Westpac-backed Little Ripper surf life-saving drones, and on drones being used to count the koala population for wildlife management via thermal imaging.

Telstra's Muru-D also has two startups currently working on drones: FluroSat and NearSat, which are investigating more efficient and cost-effective agricultural management and satellite imaging, respectively.

Eriksson told ZDNet that Telstra is now demonstrating such use cases to the Australian government's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which regulates the usage of drones, to show how they can be used via mobile networks.

The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) in May announced that it would be using Telstra's 4G network for a live trial of drone technology in the Royal Australian Air Force's Amberley Base airspace to examine potential use cases for disaster management.

LGAQ said a combination of Telstra's 4G network with three drone operators and four software platforms would allow the drones to fly beyond visual line of sight; however, current federal government legislation still requires drones to be flown within line of site. Queensland is currently examining its own drone strategy and regulations after investing AU$1 million in drone technology.

Telstra's CTO also used his Vantage 2017 presentation on Thursday to point towards the telco's efforts in vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connectivity.

So far, Telstra's V2X trials have seen it explore vehicle-to-pedestrian communications, such as using the GPS systems on drivers' and pedestrians' smartphones to predict and send alerts about possible collisions; vehicle-to-vehicle communications, which will involve cars speaking to and learning from each other, and sharing information such as the presence of potholes or road incidents; and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, with traffic lights informing cars of when to slow down.

Eriksson said Telstra is also currently working on three augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) projects: Project Halo, which uses AR to show maintenance staff, for example, a red line to where exactly a faulty rack is located within a datacentre; Project Pokemon, which uses AR to show customers how to install their new Telstra TV or router at home; and Project Smart Miner, which uses VR headsets to provide a safer training environment for mining without needing to send novices underground.

Disclosure: Corinne Reichert travelled to Telstra Vantage in Melbourne as a guest of Telstra