5G mobile networks will eventually blanket urban and suburban areas in a cloud of high-speed, low latency internet access. Scientists and engineers envision this enabling ubiquitous smart sensors and automated devices. But experiments in Austria show that 5G drones might need a rethink if they’re going to work properly.

In their paper, researcher Raheeb Muzaffar and his colleagues from the University of Klagenfurt, Lakeside Labs, Megenta Telekom, and Deutsche Telekom, detail how they attached a mobile testing platform to an Asctec Pelican research drone. They then flew the drone in specific patterns at various altitudes around a 5G base station to see how it would perform.

The results seemed mixed at best. Previous research on 4G drone connections already highlighted some issues, according to the paper. Drones interact with cellular towers in a different way than, for example, a smartphone. For instance, at the altitudes drones fly, they have line-of-sight with towers, which would be invisible from the ground. This causes weird handover issues where the drone keeps switching between towers, leading to poor performance.

The 5G drone conundrum

With the 5G experiment detailed in the research paper, this situation seems largely the same. During testing, the drone was able to get speeds above 700Mbps at times. However, in the mixed 4G/5G environment in which the experiment was conducted, switchovers between the two signal types happened at different altitudes. Most worryingly, the upload speed on the 5G connection from the drone averaged only around 46Mbps.

The use case for 5G drones is largely for streaming very high quality footage or sensor data in real time. Such relatively low upload speeds don’t bode well for this 5G drone dream. In fact, the researchers say this number isn’t really better than 4G figures.

Based on these initial findings, it may be that 5G drones developed in future are going to need advanced cellular interfaces. These drones would have to intelligently choose the right towers and maximize the signal when uploading or streaming data. Unsurprisingly, the researchers say that further studies are needed to get the full picture.


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