The federal government will shortly be facing a string of complex technical and political decisions, with the development of proposals to adapt local mobile phone networks as a continent-wide air traffic control system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In the US, Qualcomm and AT&T have announced a partnership to test UAVs on 4G LTE networks. In Australia, earlier this year Telstra revealed it was taking place in Queensland drone trials that leveraged its mobile network.
Consumer and business interest in use of UAVs — or drones — is skyrocketing, with sales proceeding briskly, even though the drones have not so far had much visual impact in actual living areas.
All this is likely to change in the near future, with several technical forecasting exercises painting a picture of unmanned aerial vehicles, probably mostly vertical lift, multi-propeller quadcopters, buzzing down suburban streets or making their way along power lines or over pastures and cropping lands for farm management purposes.
Proposed or actual uses including taking aerial photos for real estate purposes, inspecting infrastructure such as gas and water pipelines, rural bridges, fencing and telecommunications transmission towers, road accident investigations, police work and a long list of other possibilities.
Current usage rules promulgated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) restrict most operators (particularly amateurs) to daytime line of sight operations, a maximum height of 120 metres, staying well clear of aerodromes, not flying over crowds and staying out of built-up areas.
But mobile phone operators, such as Telstra in Australia, AT&T and Verizon in America and China Mobile in partnership with Ericsson are actively researching the possibility of using transmissions to and from mobile phone stations to allow control of UAVs over longer distances.
Using 3G and 4G mobile networks, and before long 5G, the drones would transmit live video back to their controllers, and in turn receive control instructions from their remote pilots through the mobile network.
Such a network would require a massive IT traffic management software system, and stringent hardware reliability criteria, with minimum latency (transmission delays) and multiple redundancy in transmission paths.
And if the government thinks it has complications with its current cyber security extension program, just wait until it is mulling over the security ramifications of installing a mobile network drone traffic control system.
Firstly, it would be necessary to guard against one emerging problem with the Internet of Things generally, the possible use of peripheral devices including drones as vulnerable pathways intocentral control networks for installation of malware, ransomware, identity theft and all the other rogue code on offer from the dark internet.
The second crucial policy issue would be how to block malign hijacking of actual drones, whether by delinquent juveniles, criminals or local terrorists.
This means deployment of a screen of extra cyber security specialists Australia-wide, further enhancing the urgency of getting as many proficient cyber security trainees as possible through the current STEM streams in the education system.
A third priority would be electronic enforcement of a safety monitoring computer system, to block drones from crashing into pedestrians (which has already happened in Australia), getting in the way of ground road traffic, or failing to land in time when running out of liquid fuel or battery charge.
One example of the way things are heading with unmanned aerial vehicles is the decision of the Queensland government in July this year to provide $1 million from its $10 million platform technology program for a drone development agreement.
The program is a partnership between Telstra, Shell QGC (Queensland Gas Company) and the Boeing subsidiary Insitu Pacific. They were looking to spend a year trying out remotely piloted aircraft systems over Queensland’s Surat Basin for use in mining, telecommunications, agriculture, energy, LNG and search and rescue.
On the menu is a prototype of a situational awareness system to help drones operate safely over substantial distances. There would also be work on enhanced data analytics tools, to augment the value of the data, photography and measurements obtained by UAVs.
Telstra has supplied Boeing with 3G/4G dongles to connect to sensors on Telstra radio towers and a groundstation.
The current Queensland government wants to build up economic activity and new technology with drones, big data and the Internet of Things. Under Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, the ambition is to make Queensland a hub in the Asia Pacific aerospace industry, with a 10-year aerospace roadmap and action plan.
As well as enabling mobile transmission towers for air traffic control of drones, Telstra has several qualified technicians operating 3D Robotics Solo drones to do maintenance inspections of the towers themselves, particularly in remote areas where getting cherry pickers and rigging staff in place is problematic.
One issue is that the towers are prime real estate for pairs of birds searching for nesting sites. If a nest is detected, Telstra needs to check if the birds are an endangered species before deciding what to do, so colour pictures from the drone are handy.
Telstra has well more than 8300 mobile station sites around 2.4 million square kilometres of territory, so the attractions of remotely piloted aircraft (CASA’s preferred terminology) are obvious.
Deployment and regulation of remotely piloted aircraft is already a perennially controversial subject. Commercial airline pilots are particularly forceful on the question of blocking them from the vicinity of airports (5.5 km exclusion distance at present) and keeping them clear of low level flight paths.
So irrespective of the specific results emerging from various tests and trials, here and abroad, this is one area of technology policy that will require close and constant attention.