Communications

Drone tracker accelerates flight approval and monitors status

16th August 2022
Sheryl Miles

Drone technology developed from the mid-1800s and took the form of balloons, torpedoes, and aerial targets. Through the following 150 years, even as the inventions became increasingly innovative and robust, drones continued to be deployed almost entirely for military purposes.

That changed when the first commercial drone permits were issued around 15 years ago. Since then, government agencies and commercial organisations have been able to use modern drones – officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – for a wide array of applications including emergency response, border and security surveillance, industrial site and pipeline inspections, crop monitoring, infrastructure monitoring, small item deliveries, mapping and more.

Today, flight approval for drone operation demands compliance with local regulations. These regulations came into force due to concerns over coordination and safety as the number of drones buzzing overhead escalated. In Europe, for example, the U-Space Regulation (EU) 2021/664 adopted by the European Commission, which comes into effect from January 2023, stipulates that all airspace participants must be able to remotely identify their drones and the operators.

These regulations, and the restrictions they bring, could present a compliance challenge for operators of existing UAVs and see the deployment of drones stall in affected regions. Fortunately, IoT innovation is helping to fast track the flight path to meeting compliance with new regulations and more effective drone monitoring.

A remote ID device for drones

Czech startup Dronetag – a company that works in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) – has developed a compact and lightweight remote ID device for UAVs through the ASPIRE WITH ESA program. The program aims to encourage private enterprise to come up with solutions to space and aerospace problems.

The Dronetag Mini solution ensures a drone is detectable to all air traffic participants. Once attached, the device brings any drone from any manufacturer into line with the new regulations.

“The number of drones being used all over Europe has been growing [quickly], leading the EU to introduce new regulations which can be restrictive if operators don’t have the right setup,” explains Lukáš Brchl, CEO of Dronetag. “Our platform makes it easy to comply with these regulations and will help to enable a range of applications – such as delivery services requiring multiple concurrent trips, or drone shows and drone fleets where multiple drones are sharing the same airspace at the same time. We expect these to become increasingly common.”

In flight, Dronetag Mini employs Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals to determine the exact position of the drone, and relays that data to the Dronetag web app via the Cloud using the drone’s integrated Nordic nRF9160 SiP’s cellular connectivity. This ensures the drone and its flight plan are visible both to airspace authorities and other pilots, and enables the user to track the drone in near real time.

Alternatively, the data can be transmitted to the Dronetag app on a user’s smartphone using Bluetooth Long Range connectivity provided by Nordic’s nRF52833 SoC. The high link budget provided by the SoC’s 2.4GHz multiprotocol radio enables Dronetag Mini to achieve an outdoor range of up to 1.5km to the user’s smartphone.

Connectivity for compliance

In addition to the drone’s position, Dronetag Mini reports the UAV’s speed and atmospheric pressure data using integrated accelerometer and barometer sensors, as well as the device’s battery level and LTE-M signal strength, and operator identification information.

From the beginning, Dronetag was looking for cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE wireless connectivity solutions that would complement each other to meet the requirements of the Dronetag Mini platform. “We integrated the nRF9160 SiP for Network Remote ID and the nRF52833 SoC for Direct Remote ID to guarantee compliance with the EU regulations,” says Brchl.

Beyond the implementation of multimode connectivity for compliance purposes, Dronetag narrowed down its selection to Nordic solutions for a number of important reasons: “We selected the nRF9160 SiP because we needed the LTE-M modem and application processor in one package to save space and simplify the board design. And we opted for cellular IoT in part because we wanted the device to have long lasting battery life,” he says. “We also appreciated the great support from Nordic during development and consider the Zephyr RTOS to be state-of-the-art in the IoT embedded world.” Zephyr is incorporated into Nordic’s nRF Connect SDK.

Ably supported by Nordic tech, the Dronetag Mini platform will ensure safe airspace coordination for the thousands of drones that will fill our skies in the future.

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