Sometimes reading the dictionary of engineering terms you can find very nice, good sounding, easy to use acronyms; sometimes, instead, you will find something really obscure and difficult to pronounce as well.
Look at this, for instance—BVLOS—that stands for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight.
What does it mean? And why should anyone want to go BVLOS?
Well, if you are a drone, there are a lot of good reasons to fly BVLOS. First of all, there’s the $13 billion the drone market is going to generate by 2025—assuming it’s allowed to take off (literally) by aviation regulatory frameworks.
Not everyone knows that in most countries, drones can only fly in a limited space within sight of the pilot, generally not more than 500 meters horizontally and 120 meters vertically. That essentially makes commercial drones not fully useful except for specific tasks, such as local difficult inspections and risk prevention.
By the way, there are many good reasons for aviation authorities to restrict drone operations, including the obvious need for safety, privacy and data security. These are things that have not yet been properly addressed by current drone technology.
Unfortunately, those restrictions also restrict the potential value of the drone market. A large part of the value drones can generate will depend on their ability to fly long distances—beyond visual line of sight.
For instance, think about the possibility of inspecting oil pipelines or rails or power lines. Or providing remote surveillance for sensitive areas (parks, properties, farms)—preventing fires, and reducing risk for people. There are billions of dollars behind all of these opportunities, but today this is not addressable, simply because it is not allowed.
Now, I can see the question popping up in your mind: “Why is this all relevant to Cisco, or better, why is Cisco relevant to the drone market and BVLOS operations?”
The answer is very simple: a drone is nothing more than a carrier for sensors. In fact, it is a sensor itself, capable of generating data relevant to the phenomena and events happening around us, and data relevant to the drone itself, such as the telemetry that allows the drone to be controlled. Drones generate tons of data that, to be commercially relevant, need to be secured, transported and analyzed. This generally happens in the cloud (on the net, not in the sky!), very far from the location where they are generated. That’s why Cisco!
Proof of Concept
Let me share with you a very interesting experimental session (as one of the initiatives of Cisco Italy Innovation Hub) we had this summer with Italian aviation regulators (ENAC and ENAV) and drone partners, ADPM Drones, NeraTECH and Sky4APPs. This was the first experimental session for BVLOS day and night operation in Italy—and one of the first in the world.
We started with a real problem and use case (because we don’t sleep well if we’re not solving customer issues). In this case the problem was significant theft and damage suffered by very valuable fish farms located seven kilometers off the coast of Tuscany. Sometimes thieves cut the nets and stole the fish. Even worse, many more fish escaped from the farm causing hundreds of thousands of Euros in losses.
As you can imagine, it’s not easy or cheap to survey or patrol such an area regularly.
So, in collaboration with ADPM, Sky4APPS and NeraTECH and with the endorsement of Italian aviation authorities, we developed a drone surveillance solution. We equipped the drone with a fog computing capability that completely encapsulated data (both telemetry and payload) into a very safe Cisco VPN with QoS, carried over a 4G connection. To make things even safer, we added an extra level of control by using Cisco Jasper SIMs in the drone.
Finally, we used Cisco Collaboration solutions (WebEx and Spark) to keep everyone in the loop, sharing drone-generated real time video, telemetry and thermal video with anyone who was required to achieve the scope of the mission.
How cool is that?
The funny thing is that, having an engineering soul, I always love to make schemes and show the technology behind a cross-architectural approach like this, because it’s a unique value that only Cisco can provide. But I would have never thought to do it on a drone for fish risk reduction!
We’ve been able to fly multiple missions controlling the drone (a fixed wing flying up to three hours) far over the sea. We used multiple levels of hardware redundancy and shared information in real time with people at the site of operation, and in other locations, via WebEx.
This has been, a great opportunity to test leading edge technologies from Cisco and partners to better solve a customer problems. Today it is asset surveillance, and tomorrow we could address many other use cases. Perhaps even more important, this experiment was also the first, instrumental step to test, identify and validate the technological and procedural framework to enable BVLOS drone operations for future commercial value.
This is only one example of innovative thinking from Cisco’s team in Italy. Stay tuned for more!