I Have 99 Problems, and My Drone’s Data Link Is a Big One
While flying a UAV and collecting aerial footage for a high-profile movie production, the drone’s video link was continuously interrupted. So much so that the collected video was unusable for Hollywood’s purposes.
By Andy Von Stauffenberg
The world of commercial drones changed drastically with the recent release of new operating rules. Just one week in and more than 3,000 drone pilots earned their “wings” (myself included!). Indeed, a whole new industry has been born before our eyes, and I think many would agree we are now entering the Golden Age of Droning. Drone businesses are popping up left and right, and whether they are involved with, for or against the use of UAVs, you cannot deny innovation is on the rise.
However, in order to effectively utilize drones to their fullest capacity, one must also be aware of their limitations. It seems one issue in particular has caught the attention of UAV enthusiasts; namely, their data links. A colleague and fellow “winged” drone pilot had an experience that encapsulates this concern perfectly:
While flying a UAV over a small town and collecting aerial footage for a high-profile movie production, the UAV’s video link was continuously interrupted. So much so that the collected video was unusable for Hollywood’s purposes. As one can imagine, the producers did not have very much patience for RF interference – time is money after all. But the truth of the matter is, there is very little that can be done to protect a drone’s data link from interference, other than changing the flight course to a less populated area and crossing your fingers. If you needed specific footage and changing the flight path was not an option, you would be forced to bid adieu to your shot in Hollywood.
Almost all civilian drones on the market use one or two ubiquitous frequencies for data links; 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz to be precise. Of course, if you’ve ever used a wireless router, you’re already familiar with these terms as they are Wi-Fi frequencies. Being that they are already approved by the FAA for public use and have the ability to transmit a massive amount of data, these frequencies are a perfect choice for drones.
However, as with anything else, Wi-Fi frequencies are a very finite resource, and unfortunately conflicts can arise from a variety of sources. When using your home router, you don’t typically run into problems of overcrossing Wi-Fi Frequencies because personal home routers are usually sufficiently separated. In addition, home routers employ multiple channels, so if you do run into an issue with a neighbors’ conflicting Wi-Fi, you can simply switch to a different channel – problem solved!
Yet, for drones flying overhead, it works a bit differently. With the distance between the controller (your intended router) and the drone as far as one mile, you might see dozens of other routers along the way that could easily interfere with your signal. This is what caused the lost link situation in the example above, which resulted in lost footage, time and money. It’s not too difficult to see how in a different circumstance a sudden loss of data could have more severe consequences, like the collision of drones.
Unfortunately, interference from other Wi-Fi sources is not the only factor that can cause a data link disruption. Attenuation from the environment is also a common culprit. Wi-Fi signals are terrible at penetrating vegetation and solid walls (if you’ve ever tried connecting to a router three rooms away, you know what this feels like). So, if you are flying near trees or tall buildings, you should almost expect a vanishing signal.
We have to remember that while Wi-Fi is easy to use, it wasn’t designed to act as a drone link and because of this, it is being stretched to its limits. Nonetheless, I am optimistic that the innovations emerging in the UAV space will soon solve this issue and believe we will see a separate, special drone data link standard emerge within the next few years to counteract the limitations being placed on the use of drones in the commercial space.
In the meantime, if you are serious about using drones in your line of work, please make sure you and your team are aware of these types of issues to ensure safety is top of mind. Investing in a basic line of Wi-Fi Analyzers (like this one here: rfexplorer.com) is a great start! If you have additional questions on correcting your commercial drone’s data links, email my team at email@example.com.
Andy Von Stauffenberg is CEO of VStar Systems.
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