Can drones be used for mobile network testing?

Drones are becoming popular in mobile testing space for 4G and 5G networks

A mobile network or cellular network is a radio communication network having a highly complex architecture. Network components are intricately designed to meet desired quality requirements of the mobile network and users equally. To subscribers, it is not just about the ability to call, watch videos, post on social media platforms but also about the quality of the network to stream videos, post content, consistency, and availability of network round the clock. Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) always want to give the best Quality of Experience (QoE) to users. But every time they configure a network or add any new configurations on an existing network, there arises a question of whether the latest version will be able to deliver the expected quality or not.

Excellent network quality is something that can be achieved through running tests in a continuous manner to make sure all associated components and implemented functionalities are working. Once it meets all the list of quality requirements, they are set to launch/commercialise to consumers and enterprise users. As the network like 5G is being expanded on a global scale, operators need to test in every scenario in outdoor and busy indoor areas, for example, perform drive testing for outdoor locations with RF drive test tools. Also, sometimes it is a bit difficult for them to perform network testing, for example, areas having long IoT connected drills in the oil & gas industry where humans are unable to move smoothly. To perform network testing in such strenuous situations, drones are being used and taking testing to another level. Drones are executing tests and capturing all measurement KPIs in real-time used for post-processing.

Benefits of drone mobile network testing

  • Performs mobile network testing on a wider geographical area
  • Enhanced safety for both indoor and outdoor inspections with no exposure of humans to hazards like falling, being vulnerable to hazardous gases, or being trapped.
  • Ability to capture real-time information to make immediate adjustments in the network as and when required
  • Combined with radio planning, tower inspections and line-of-sight testing between the towers
  • Improved operational efficiency

Measuring radio signal interference with drones

New opportunities are being explored as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are gaining traction in the mobile network testing space. When it comes to the evaluation of interferences from systems located indoors suppose in a private 5G network deployed in an enterprise location, UAV measurements have multiple benefits compared to legacy assessment methods and can help in using 5G network testing equipment and tools. A significant amount of work is required for propagation prediction tools for modelling building accurately and does not automate with a change in environment such as installation of modern industrial systems. Traditional interference measurement techniques like drive tests and walk tests require a lot of time and may present difficulties to make sure measurements are consistent.

Drone demonstrations to test 4G/5G cellular networks

  • In 2020, Verizon, Skyward, and UPS Flight Forward collaborated to test the 4G LTE network in delivery drones to assess the reliability and performance of the network at altitude.
  • AT&T and Qualcomm joined hands to inspect drones on commercial 4G LTE networks. KPIs such as throughput, signal strength, mobility, coverage and latency were tested under multiple scenarios using the commercially available spectrum of AT&T.
  • TDC NET and Ericsson entered into a partnership for ‘Intelligent Site Engineering’ service of monitoring 5G network using drones, AI/ML, 3D modeling technologies. Drones and other technologies were put into action to create 3D models such as ‘digital twins’ to assess and execute remote testing for the required site. As a result, one engineer can perform the entire test in just one hour instead of requiring a whole team and cumbersome equipment. TDC NET used this service in around 200 locations efficiently.
  • Percepto, a drone manufacturing company utilized SK Telecom’s network using the 5G trial network. The companies mutually agreed to explore the potential of both autonomous drones and 5G network.

Conclusion

New-age network like 5G and 4G is becoming highly demanding in every industry across the globe. Businesses are continuously digitalizing their legacy operations to become more efficient in meeting their business goals and earn revenues. This requires expansion of wireless network and comprises heavy workloads of deployment from planning to testing to commercialising. One of the critical phases for operators while developing such complex networks is the testing phase. Recently been in the news, drones have emerged as an important asset and are being used by operators to perform mobile network testing. Onboarding drones, operators can conduct a series of flight tests to inspect and collect data in real-time for the targeted location. With reduced risk, decreased turn-around time, drone testing, in addition, has high potential in saving insurance costs. Test engineers are no longer prone to dangerous situations thus improving the whole inspection process in a much more efficient way. Having said that, drones are revolutionising telecom industry in mobile network testing and expected to bring new innovations in the near future.

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