5G industry news

"Digital connectivity is key to the future of flight"

  • 4 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 10 Jan 2022
  • Last modified 7 Jan 2022
As a part of the UK5G Transport and Logistics Campaign, we’ve been working with and asking organisations in the sector what they think of 5G. We spoke to Hannah Tew, Ecosystem Director of Air Mobility & Airports, Connected Places Catapult.

1. Please can you tell UK5G about your business.

We are a part of the UK’s Catapult network and as such we help to convene different ecosystems around several key innovation topics including air mobility. This involves thinking about aviation, air mobility and airports. Within aviation, there are two big handfuls of activity: future flight, looking at integrating new classes of vehicles into airspaces (drones, urban and regional air mobility); and aviation sustainability, which is focusing on what’s being done today and where it can be improved (sustainable airport infrastructure for example). 

We are currently concentrating on zero-emission flight infrastructure and supporting the development of airspace modernisation. There are some great challenges within the communications and management of airspace: specifically with the integration of new modes of air transport, how we know where electric vehicles are in space and how will they communicate safely and securely. There’s much to be done. 

2. How important is digital connectivity for your business? 

Digital connectivity is key to the future of flight. We need to be able to regulate vehicles and spaces in today’s environment. However, at the rate we hope and anticipate the industry growing, there aren’t enough people to sufficiently manage air traffic as it is done today. So, automation and autonomy by way of connectivity are coming. 

The journey from exclusively manual air traffic control, as it is today, to a fully autonomous management system will be challenging, but needed to unlock electric flight. Cybersecurity and safety are paramount. Are we going to have a monopoly or a federated service? How are contributors going to communicate securely? Who is going to own that data? We are looking at a situation that is going to need clear thinking and sophisticated solutions. We need to secure open standards that avoid creating one monopoly and as a result, we are involved with different teams already working in this exciting space. 

3. Do you have plans to deploy 5G? 

We know that there needs to be a way for drones to be conspicuous and communicate in the sky. We also know that ideally, we need a solution that is cheap, ubiquitous and well understood, SIM cards appear to provide this. The challenge is that the current telecoms regulatory framework does not allow flights with an active SIM card without permissions, and we need regulatory changes to enable that. One of the challenges about 5G is also the interference with the bandwidth. The better your equipment, the narrower your bandwidth will potentially be. Setting it at a certain bandwidth is an option but then you may have a range constraint. Geofencing could work, but how do we regulate and enforce that? Again, there’s a massive sprawling answer. We’re trying to work through it and encourage the telecoms companies and OfCom to engage in conversations about this. There is a huge market here for commercial drone use: 70,000 commercial drones flying by 2030. 5G is a potential solution for these communications but it needs to be managed and implemented in the right way and with the right frequencies. 

4. How do you think it should be managed and implemented? 

In America, there is early evidence of 5G rollouts disrupting communications between aeroplanes and air traffic control. It’s something to take very seriously, and possibly to use as an opportunity to overhaul the licensing of spectrum above ground. We also need to think about handover between network providers and network communication standards. Trials involving the private sector, OfCom, DCMS, Innovators and possibly Connected Places Catapult could be useful in this space.  

5. How important do you think 5G is going to be for the transport and logistics sector? 

Transport and logistics have been changed by Covid-19 with an acceleration towards mass commoditisation. More of us are working from home, ordering online. Logistics is changing. The way people travel is changing with mobility as a service rather than all owning vehicles. But we are going to need the right digital infrastructure to enable this, whether we’re talking about autonomous vehicles in the sky or fleets of e-Scooters on the ground. 5G is one of the tools that will be fundamental here. If you’re going to have a communication technology, it needs to be ubiquitous.