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GSMA finds MNO connectivity key to advancing air mobility markets of APAC and North America

GSMA says secure and reliable networks are the backbone of future unmanned aerial systems operations and high-speed communication is critical for scaling aerial applications. Equally, it is not all about technology; public acceptance is equally important.

According to the GSMA blog:

Across the globe, mobile and aviation ecosystems are consolidating to agree common approaches, applications and infrastructure. Yet progress varies across regions. Of course, developing aerial mobility often requires common solutions – but in many cases, it also requires an understanding of the nuances of each market. The development of drone infrastructure in each economic region is explained in the recently released MNO Drone Services Business Models white paper. The paper outlines how MNOs can support a wide variety of services in the UAV market and considers potential business models to help operators understand how to capture new value and to make the right investments in infrastructure. In doing so, it provides comprehensive details of eighteen separate applications, their availability across all major regional markets, the operators that support them, and their maturity.

The release of the paper coincided with two recent industry events on opposite sides of the globe which helped shed light on these trends and differences between regions. The M360 APAC Mobility Transformation Summit, and Smart Mobility Summit: Advancing UAV at MWC23 Las Vegas explained the challenges in both major economic areas, and how MNOs are – or should be – investing in each region.

Building the infrastructure for urban aerial mobility.

As the technology used in cellular UAVs becomes more capable, the ecosystem collaborating more deeply to overcome key challenges and identify the greatest commercial opportunities. A central focus is the creation of aerial infrastructure – an especially key point of discussion in APAC. Among other regional players, SK Telecom and LG UPlus both have ambitious plans for urban air mobility. SK Telecom’s Jeongil Kim explained the company’s mission – to use aerial mobility to reduce urban congestion and improve the environment. He stressed the need for a collaborative ecosystem, shared data and systems to produce what Kim described as ‘connected intelligence’. Citing collaboration with global leaders like Joby and the Korea Airports Corporation, he emphasised their shared goal of establishing comprehensive flight management systems and ‘vertiport’ locations aided by the use of 5G and mobile data. This new flight architecture includes a new airline, traffic management system and the infrastructure for bookings and payment. Although still it’s pilot phase, the flagship project is on course for commercially readiness between 2024 and 2025.

LG Uplus’ Dong Wook Seo’s outlined similar objectives – to disperse traffic away from congested roads, reduce environmental impact, and ensure safe, efficient operations. He explained how they had concentrated their efforts into an intricate ecosystem comprising traffic management and monitoring and ground communication components. Their use of advanced mobile communication and quantum cryptography, he argued, was central to their commitment to secure, zero-emission urban air transportation. Echoing a similar objective, Skyports’ Mitchel Williams described his company’s vision to build a modern aerial infrastructure comprising of vertiports and seamless aerial corridors.

Speaking of how drones can be used to improve existing infrastructure Kamarul A. Muhamed, CEO of Aerodyne, explained how his company is redefining how critical infrastructure like highways and telecommunication towers are inspected. Using AI and data analytics, drones capture data, convert it into digital twins, and automatically detect defects and issues. This transformative approach has substantially improved efficiency, reducing costs by up to 30% and increasing process efficacy by 400%.

In the North America, the focus was a little different, more centred on UAV – instead emphasising specific ways in which network technology could be used to overcome geographical challenges and collision. AT&T’s Peter Musgrove explained the importance of their Geocast Operations Framework (GOF), which could tackle challenges like limited cellular coverage and situational awareness. In a similar vein, Leila Zurba Ribeiro of MITRE Engenuity Open Generation 5G Consortium discussed her company’s initiative to enable BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) use cases. To do this, they deployed a private 5G network in Rome and New York (U.S.A.) and tested applications like Hazmat sign recognition, showcasing the capabilities of 5G networks in real-time data processing and edge computing.

Patrick Castagnino of Airbus emphasised the need to adapt mobile infrastructure for drones. Mobile connectivity, he stressed, is the future of modern use cases such as aerial taxis. The key, he argued, is engaging with regulators and ensuring secure communication links through slicing technology and to embrace hybrid approaches involving satellite communication.

Common Ground: secure communication for BVLOS operations

The most striking similarity between the two regions was the emphasis on the need for secure, reliable networks – and importantly how important this was for scaling BVLOS applications. Both APAC and North American experts stressed the need for high-throughput communication to scale and develop future aerial applications. SK Telecom and LG UPlus speaking for APAC, and AT&T and MITRE Engenuity Open Generation 5G Consortium in North America, all highlighted the significance of secure communication channels, whether for efficient services or real-time data processing. As did Skydio’s Chief of Staff, Mike Ross, who emphasised the need for reliable connectivity at low altitudes, especially for real-time data transmission and avoiding conflicts with ground assets.

Yet despite the consensus on the crucial role of mobile connectivity in UAV technology, there was a sense from both geographies that despite technological prowess and regulatory support, public acceptance remains pivotal to market growth. Addressing public concerns about uncrewed aviation safety is critical, with the creation of standardised, safe operations and integration into existing aviation ecosystems a key priority.

Divergent paths? Prioritising physical or mobile infrastructure

APAC’s focus on building new physical infrastructure to ease current environmental, urban and transport challenges is contrasted with North America’s priority for adapting existing mobile infrastructure to accommodate the requirements of a growing UAV BVLOS market. In North America, there is clear desire to mitigate interference and ensure safety, improve public networks, and when needed, develop private networks tailored to digital aviation.

These differences are underscored in the industry white paper. In general, there are a far greater number of applications in use across APAC than North America, a telling sign of the market’s maturity in each location. Growth in each region follows similar patterns, with the North American market growing at 8.1% in 2022 and expected to rise to 12.1% in 2030. APAC on the other hand, was increasing by 11.9% in 2022 and is forecast to grow by 19.4% in 2030.

Differences in regional priority are a product of each region’s differences in public infrastructure, geography, urban culture and population density. Disparities in growth are, in part, reflections of the difference in market maturity – yet this not the whole story. APAC has made significant strides in developing regulation that make pilots, commercial services – and ultimately investment – much more likely. Both regions still represent strong investment opportunities, but North America – and in the USA in particular – needs to accelerate regulation for aerial mobility to remain on the same footing as leading Asian markets.

While both APAC and North American markets are innovating in different ways to overcome regionally-specific challenges, they share the same fundamental vision: a future where UAVs seamlessly integrate into urban landscapes, transforming transportation and reshaping the way we perceive the skies above us. In this respect, we can expect, more commonality than not – as with aviation and automotive sectors, the prosperity of regional markets demands universality. One such common element crucial to this uniformity are mobile networks which, regardless of their location, will need to operate reliably, securely and intelligently – the future of UAVs depends on it.

Download GSMA’s Drone Services Business Models white paper here

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