Vodafone today announced it has started testing a 4G and Internet of Things (IoT)-based system designed to track drones, marking a world's first, according to the company. Preliminary testing took place late last year while Vodafone expects additional testing to take place in 2018 in Europe, with a view to making the technology commercially available sometime in 2019.
This technology has specifically been conceived with the aviation sector in mind and as a tool to help air traffic control (ATC) better know the whereabouts of drones while they are in flight. According to Vodafone, its "Radio Positioning System (RPS) for drones" sees a 4G modem and a SIM added to each drone. From there, each drone can be tracked in real-time and within an accuracy of 50 meters. While this will primary enable drone tracking by third-party entities (such as ATC), Vodafone also explain the tracking technology will be as beneficial to drone operators as it will allow them to track a drone once it is beyond a line-of-sight. Furthermore, the tracking technology itself includes preset aspects which will further reduce the likelihood of a collision due to pre-programmed commands which will force a drone to return home or land if it enters places that have been deemed to be restricted airspace for drones. At the more extreme level, the technology is also said to include a manual override feature where authorities will have the ability to override operator control when needed.
As the press release points out, drones have become an increasingly worrying concern for ATC and in no small part due to their size – as they are too small to be tracked by current aviation tools, such as radar. A climate that has routinely resulted in a number of reports of drones and aircrafts entering the same airspace without the latter aware of the former. This is where Vodafone hopes its solution will prove valuable by providing a much improved and needed tracking system for all involved. One, which while accessible to human eyes, will not be dependent on human intervention as Vodafone also confirmed it has developed artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to work in conjunction with RPS as a means to ensure larger numbers of drones can be monitored (and controlled when needed) automatically. While such a system may raise concerns over its security, Vodafone draws on the security associated with 4G mobile networks to suggest the technology not only benefits from end-to-end encryption, but is also protected against hacking and spoofing. While the aviation sector is likely to be the main beneficiary from the technology if it becomes widely adopted, Vodafone did also point out how the small remote-controlled flying devices have been used to facilitate certain crimes. With the suggestion the tracking technology is likely to be of benefit to other sectors as well, such as law enforcement.