As connectivity improves and automation increases, we can expect to see drones living at the edge, completing autonomous missions, and uploading data directly to the cloud. That’s the idea that AlefEdge Executive Chairman and AirMap advisor Mike Mulica explored with colleagues from across the drone industry in GUTMA’S recent Drones at the Edge webinar. AirMap caught up with Mike to discuss the future of edge computing and drone enablement.

Let’s start with the big picture. How does edge computing facilitate drone workflow automation?

Edge computing is a distributed computing framework that makes it possible to process data closer to where it is captured by sensor networks. It means lower latency and better use of computing and network resources to support the Internet of Things. With edge computing capabilities, drones will be able to automate data management and stream data directly to the cloud for processing and analytics. Edge computing makes it possible for data upload to take place closer to drones’ operation locations, for example at a cell tower or local edge data center. That has major implications for drone delivery and inspection, and it means enterprises and public safety officials will be able to deploy more drones to execute complex use cases, which generate and consume vast amounts of data and edge connectivity.

The distributed edge is fast becoming a reality as Microsoft Azure (an AirMap strategic partner) and Amazon Web Services (AWS) deploy native clouds that are being pushed to more granular edge positions. Conversely, private LTE is accelerating globally, enabling enterprise and other non-traditional MNOs to operate a complete stack of connectivity, edge native cloud, and drone operations.

We are seeing global Mobile Network Operators and native cloud vendors intersecting with full stack, fully standards-compliant LTE enterprise networks that leverage identical native cloud platforms. This configuration of industrial MNO edge and DIY enterprise edge will drive new workflows and business models for broad drone adoption.

When it comes to drones and edge computing, tower inspections are an interesting first use case. Tell us how today’s tower inspections are paving the way for more advanced drone operations.

Today’s tower inspections use automation to great effect: flight planning, data capture, and data processing are all automated. Drone automation software like TowerSight enables telcos and MNOs to create high-precision digital twins of their infrastructure, establish precise inventories of their base station equipment, measure their antenna tilts, spot rust, and plan tower maintenance remotely at scale. That portfolio intelligence helps towercos and MNOs make smart business decisions, including accelerating the physical rollout of 5G networks. For example, Rakuten Mobile is using AirMap’s TowerSight solution to inspect base station sites with drones as it rolls out the world’s first fully virtualized mobile network.

Edge computing is necessary for drone enablement at scale. There is no 5G without edge, but edge can be deployed as a precursor to broad-based 5G deployment in conjunction with 4G connectivity and P-LTE. Towercos and MNOs have an inside-out ROI equation, where drone operations can drive enormous savings and revenue creation. That starts with creating the automation for 5G deployments and will ultimately result in a full ERP system for the broader mobile industry. With configuration for low altitude connectivity, 4G and 5G networks will enable a high volume of drone operations, facilitate greater data exchange, and enable edge cloud computing at very low latency. Mobile edge will make BVLOS operations, dynamic deconfliction, and ultimately urban air mobility possible. With 5G, drone inspections at the edge will become the norm, unlocking true automation, generating instant insights, and allowing for automated tasking based upon independent systems and sensors.

What’s the long term vision here? Will autonomous robotics at the edge become a public utility?

Yes, that’s the idea. Drones at the edge will become a key part of our infrastructure and will be used to complete missions in the public interest, such as infrastructure inspections or public safety missions. We live in an ever-increasing shared resource economy. Drone services are prototypical of a high-leverage shared resource, and numerous users will leverage the same physical connectivity, edge cloud data centers, and drone equipment. In many cases this full stack is justified by the initial use case, like cellular tower inspection, with additional utility and use cases coming for free.

Tell us about drones-in-a-box.

Drones-in-a-box are the next generation of drone technology. Towercos will lease their prime edge estate to data center operators, enabling edge cloud and real time management of drones-in-a-box. Those drones will be deployed at local edge positions around the world and autonomously conduct missions in their vicinity, including tower inspections and many other shared commercial missions. They’ll then return to their towers, where they can recharge and continue to send data to the cloud. It’s a fully automated solution that makes the most of edge computing and mobile connectivity.

Thanks, Mike, for sharing those insights.

Exciting developments are coming to the drone and telecom industries. If you’re a towerco or MNO interested in using TowerSight to unlock tower intelligence and gain actionable business insights, visit airmap.com/towersight or email us at sales@airmap.com.