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The Future of 5G: Up in The Air

The Future of 5G: Up in The Air
February 23, 2021

There is little in common between the first flight of the Wright Brothers and the dawn of 5G. However, these technology milestones from different millennia in combination are poised to instigate a revolution like none before. Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) or “drones”, combined with the power of 5G networks, are about to invade our lives in ways that will outshine that screen in your hands. Resistance will be thoroughly futile. With growing interest from telecom operators and OEMs, coupled with a steady easing of government regulations, in the next three to five years, drones will become indispensable in the following three emerging areas:

  1. 5G Network Coverage with Drones

    Drones will change how mobile networks are envisaged. They will enable true “on-demand” wireless connectivity, reduce network operating costs, and improve network coverage. The collaboration, coordination, and self-organizing capabilities in drones can be utilized to form flying ad hoc networks, with network parameters fine-tuned at near-real time. Operators will no longer need to choose between building for over-capacity and compromising on user experience during the few hours of peak traffic. A swarm of drones, using a combination of microwave and millimeter-wave links, can support mobility networks over a range of terrain conditions (Figures 1a, 1b and 1c) and optimally meet varying demand conditions through the course of a single day.

    Drone-Assisted Communication in City

    Figure 1a: Drone-Assisted Communication in City
    (MW – Microwave)

    Drone-Assisted Communication in Mountainous Area

    Figure 1b: Drone-Assisted Communication in Mountainous Area
    (MW – Microwave)

    Drone-Assisted Communication in Dense City

    Figure 1c: Drone-Assisted Communication in Dense City
    (A2A – Air to Air; A2G – Air to Ground)
    (MW – Microwave; mmWave – Millimeter Wave)

    Several operators have acted on their drone strategies. Verizon has been deepening its commitment to drones, as evidenced by their earlier acquisition of Skyward (a drone operation company). AT&T and Verizon both have executed Cell-Tower on Wings for disaster recovery back in the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons. Deutsche Telekom is pioneering a prototype for 5G “beams” broadcast by drones hovering at 65,000 feet to connect 500 million users in the UK; these 5G beams will be “steerable” and will allow "painting" certain areas with on-demand 5G coverage. Over the next 3-5 years, operator-spend is likely to rise rapidly on drones to improve 5G networks.

  2. 5G Use-Case Enablement with Drones

    5G’s ultra-low latency, high data throughput and high customizability will drive new use cases for drones that were previously impossible with the “one network fits all” approach of 4G and Wi-Fi.

    5G features will enable network connectivity for drones flying at high speeds, enable precision tracking of location, and support a high density of connected devices. 5G will allow separate “network slices” to support customized use-cases with specific needs around latency, throughput, and reliability (Figure 2a). 5G network resources can be dynamically allocated based on real-time needs, such as dialing up bandwidth for drones assisting first responders. Furthermore, advancements in multi-access edge computing (MEC) will allow offloading of complex functions away from centralized servers and enable drones to become faster and more autonomous. Finally, chipset advancements are paving the way to AI-enabled fully autonomous drone swarms (Qualcomm’s new processor targets AI on Drones connected over 5G).

    5G Features for Customized Needs of Diverse Use Cases

    Figure 2a: 5G Features for Customized Needs of Diverse Use Cases

    These advancements will enrich several use cases for drones– such as first responder assistance, city traffic monitoring, line inspections (gas, electricity, railway), inspections of buildings and towers, precision agriculture, network inspection, security monitoring, fire-fighting, and more. We may also see “data centers on wings”– with drones operating as aerial compute and storage servers to take MEC literally to the next level (Figure 2b).

    Drone-Enabled MEC System

    Figure 2b: Drone-Enabled MEC System

    Verizon has a declared intention of connecting 1 million drones with 5G. Other operators have also begun to consider drone use-cases as a major revenue stream for their 5G networks.

  3. The “New” Network Security with Drones

    Allow me to take a brief detour from drones and toward traditional network security.

    With 5G networks, the explosion of devices will make network security more important than ever before. Traditional methods of network security rely on encryption and decryption of data using a combination of number patterns or “keys”– one publicly known (public key) and the other privately shared between trusted parties (private key). Encrypted data can be decrypted only by a trusted party using the private key associated with the original encryption.

    With 5G Networks, the explosion of devices will make network security more important than ever before

    There is one well-known flaw with this approach– it is possible for a malicious player to mathematically derive the private key from the public key and get unauthorized access. The only saving grace, which keeps this monstrous vulnerability under control, is that the fastest known computers today will take so long a time (thousands of years) to complete such mathematical derivation of a private key, that the hack attempt is rendered meaningless.

    However, this perceived safety is not permanent. We are rapidly approaching the equivalent of a Y2K moment for network security. Sufficiently advanced “quantum computers” can already outperform traditional computers and complete complex operations in minutes instead of years (if interested, check out the Shor’s algorithm). The supremacy of quantum computing over traditional computing has been demonstrated by Google and by Chinese researchers; advances in this field will only pick up speed going forward. The “slowness” of a traditional computer will no longer hinder a motivated hacker.

    The “post-quantum” world will require a very different approach to ensuring network security. One promising new method for encryption/decryption of data involves the use of “quantum keys” that leverage the phenomenon of “quantum entanglement”. While a discussion on the underlying physics is outside the scope of this article (if interested, please see the sources cited here), a critical engineering challenge in making this work relates to “quantum key distribution”– a mechanism by which a pattern of photons (while retaining certain “quantum characteristics”) are optically distributed between the trusted parties in the network.

    Thanks for indulging me with that slight detour. Allow me to come back to the topic of drones.

    Quantum key distribution has been successfully done over conventional optic fiber and through visual line-of-sight using low-earth-orbit satellites. Both these approaches have severe limitations. With optic fiber, long-distance quantum key distribution is difficult– photons are seen to retain the desired quantum characteristics typically up to 60 miles of fiber (some organizations have claimed to go up to 700 miles.). With satellites, since a visual line of sight is needed, the quantum key distribution is possible only for a short duration at night and in clear weather.

    On the other hand, drones are considerably more successful with quantum key distribution, as demonstrated by Chinese researchers. Drones will be able to act as intermediary trusted nodes in the network (Figure 3) and enable long-distance quantum key distribution. The flexibility, on-demand scalability and configurability provided with drones will surpass implementations that rely on fiber or satellites alone.

    Illustrative Scheme for a Drone-Based Mobile Quantum Network

    Figure 3: Illustrative Scheme for a Drone-Based Mobile Quantum Network

    Drones will play a critical role in establishing the next generation of network security in the “post-quantum” 5G world.

    In conclusion, a new 5G drone economy is emerging as we speak, and over the next three to five years, this will present an immense number of opportunities for a variety of players— telecom operators, OEMs, software vendors, cloud service providers, and especially system integrators. System integrators will need to be ready to play the critical role of connecting the right dots to help meet the challenges and promises of the 5G world.

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