Drone communication: an evolving area of improvement

Drone communication: an evolving area of improvement

Enrico Natalizio, Vice President, and Pietro Tedeschi, Senior Security Researcher at the Autonomous Robotics Research Center take a closer look at the task of securing drone communications to ensure the technology reaches its potential. 

In recent years, our world has become more digitally connected than ever – and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, now play a starring role in the evolving fields of e-commerce, especially in last-mile logistics. 

Interconnected smart devices can drive emerging areas of research with use cases in several commercial and security domains. For instance, the integration of robotic agents and IoT has led to the concept of the Internet of Robotic Things, where innovation in digital systems is drawing new possibilities in both industrial and research fields, covering domains such as manufacturing, agriculture, health, surveillance and education. 

Logistics companies like Amazon are keen to use drones for carrying high-value packages at higher frequencies and have started piloting this initiative in the United States. According to McKinsey, drones completed over 660,000 commercial deliveries between 2018 and 2021. As of 2022, McKinsey says over 2,000 drone deliveries are taking place worldwide daily. At this rate, around 1.5 million drone deliveries could be completed by the end of 2022. Amazon’s ‘Prime Air’ announced plans to recruit 1,300 test customers and operate 145 drone launchpads in a bid to have 250 drones in the air, delivering 500 million packages per year. 

With more businesses incorporating drone technology into their workflow, we are already witnessing advancements that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Drones are adding value in firefighting, construction, marketing, e-commerce, agriculture, and of course, as a hobby – however, more work needs to be done to provide drones with the autonomous stack to allow them to perform high-quality deliveries. 

The importance of communication 

 Drone communication is becoming increasingly crucial to understand how drones maintain contact with a ground station, as well as in a swarm, to support the performance of a specific mission. Once optimised, drone communication can open a world of possibilities and enable a plethora of cool applications that involve the deployment of multi-robot systems. 

The adoption of UAVs in civilian and military infrastructure such as airports, ports, railways, water treatment plants, electric power plants, electricity grids, and oil and gas extraction fields is growing exponentially thanks to the increasingly low costs and wide range of advanced features they present. UAVs offer incredible benefits but can also be used for illicit purposes such as violating restricted areas, infringing the privacy of individuals by trespassing in sensitive areas, and as attack vectors against selected targets in cyberattacks. 

Securing communication 

Securing communication links between UAV-to-UAV and UAV-to-ground station; providing dead reckoning navigation in environments without global navigation satellite systems; guaranteeing a strong security level in sensitive and critical communications; and, simultaneously providing privacy-preserving solutions for the whole communication stack for UAVs, are key to maintaining the well-being of aerial vehicles and maximising their return on investment. 

To ensure these imperatives, it is crucial to invest heavily in research that enables us to design and implement solutions against cyber-physical threats and attacks. Sound communication protocols in multi-robot systems will enable us to improve the autonomy of these systems and empower robots to cooperate and respond as one unit to any change in the external environment.  

Information security is critical to the success of any mission, whether that involves accurately dropping off pizza to customers’ homes or delivering medical supplies to hospitals or aid to victims of natural disasters. 

Rise of the robots 

Autonomous multi-robot systems have attracted growing attention in recent years due to their enormous, almost unlimited, capability expansion over single robot systems. A communication system is often regarded as the glue that plays an essential role in going beyond conventional data exchange into localisation, sensing, control, etc. Each building block of the multi-robot system can be better embedded with a sharper focus on areas such as communications, signal processing, robotics and control. 

What’s more, functional communication will provide robots with greater flexibility to download and adapt new types of behavior – a set of specialised algorithms for specific tasks – at the end of one mission and the start of another. This can lead to significantly boosting the robot system’s capabilities. 

Understand the issues 

Drones today communicate via a wireless mesh network that enables long-distance connectivity without requiring a central access point. They’re also equipped to avoid obstacles and track altitude through onboard LiDAR (light detection and ranging) instruments. While primary long-range communication systems for drones may leverage satellite or cellular technology, the costs incurred, depending on the available spectrum and the activity in each network, can be a limiting factor. 

In addition, robotics research focused on specialised communication and networking suites for multi-robot systems or swarms is conspicuously limited in its scope today. Greater exploration into drone communication issues could help inform industry and drive regulatory negotiations on better standards and protocols to improve drone reliability. While there is considerable hype about fleets of drones delivering packages and surveying infrastructure, no one has worked out how exactly these fleets will communicate at scale. It is one thing to create a prototype application with radios that function within view of an operator, and quite another to reliably communicate with fleets of dozens or even hundreds of drones over very long distances. 

Once we overcome these limitations, we can ensure that multi-robot applications are faster, more cost-efficient, and more competent. Furthermore, by allowing a group of robots that communicate with one another to perform a mission together, we will likely stimulate a set of new applications – where each robot can demonstrate a unique type of behavior. For instance, one or more robots could provide localisation and way-finding support to a robot carrying out surveillance in a GPS-denied area. Or a robot equipped with special cameras could capture videos of a disaster that could then be analysed by robots with higher computational capabilities to find possible survivors of that disaster. 

Making a difference 

At the Autonomous Robotics Research Center (ARRC) of the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), the applied research arm of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), a dedicated Networked Robotics team is hard at work to propose new communications algorithms, protocols, or mechanisms for multi-robot systems. 

The team’s effort involves studying current technologies and working to improve them for specific systems, as well as to develop new software solutions based on existing technologies – taking care to factor in the unique characteristics of the aerial, terrestrial, and marine robot systems. The team is working on the premise that these devices are aware of their mobility and operational capabilities, and can use this awareness to communicate better within the system or swarm. 

As technology improves the transportation, mobility and logistics sectors in the years to come, drone communications will leapfrog to offer these sectors the necessary impetus to further advance their operations. Given their surging demand in contactless rescue and medical support in the healthcare and security industry, as well as in e-commerce in our post-pandemic world, drones are set to become ubiquitous drivers of change.