You’re reading it here first: Vodafone Idea is set to enter India’s drone ecosystem by partnering with Zomato in the upcoming “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) drone experiments being organised by India’s civil aviation regulator, a company source confirmed to MediaNama. BVLOS drone operations allow remote piloting of drones, and do not need to be manoeuvred by keeping the drone in sight. This a crucial use case for the industry from a commercialisation perspective, according to multiple people from the industry.

Vodafone Idea and Zomato are part of the ClearSky consortium, which is one of the 13 consortia that have been been allowed by the DGCA to partake in the trials. ClearSky includes Gurugram-based drone startup TechEagle Innovations, Bengaluru-based AI company Curl Analytics, and US-based drone traffic management company, Airmap, another source involved in the project confirmed to us. Even though TechEagle is no longer a part of Zomato, both the companies have said that they will go ahead with the trials. TechEagle’s founder and CEO Vikram Singh Meena is the project coordinator for the ClearSky consortium.

Vodafone Idea to provide SIM cards for communication between the drone

Vodafone Idea will provide LTE support to TechEagle’s drones that’ll take flight as part of the project, another person involved in the project told MediaNama, on the condition of anonymity. “The drones will be attached with a device with a Vodafone Idea SIM in it, which can be used to connect to the internet and gather data such as weather updates and airspace status, among other things,” the person said.

The DGCA is running an experiment to examine the viability of commercial BVLOS operations, which current regulations do not permit. It has created a regulatory sandbox for this, and has permitted at least 10 consortia — including Reliance-backed Asteria Aerospace, Nandan Nilekani-backed ShopX, Spicejet, and ClearSky — to start the project. Each consortium is basically a group of companies within the drone ecosystem.

BVLOS-enabled drones have to address challenges similar to that of an aircraft:

  • They need to be updated about weather changes, geographic and demographic data of the area over which they’re flying, and sudden changes to flying zone status, among other things, in order to be aware of weather conditions and to prevent collisions with other drones or aircraft in the same airspace.
  • To ensure that, these drones need to communicate with each other, using what is called a UAS Traffic Management System (UTM), which is essentially an automated air traffic control system for drones. BVLOS capable Drones need to be connected to the internet at all times to ensure that UTMs work accurately. The connection to the internet can happen in three different ways: On a 4G network, or on unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequency bands.

“TechEagle’s drones will utilise both the unlicensed bands and Vodafone Idea’s 4G network, for redundancy,” another person involved in the project told MediaNama. “Vodafone Idea, courtesy of being a telco has access to data about population density of several places, and its large network of towers will ensure that the drone stays connected to the internet at all times. This is crucial information for BVLOS drones,” the person said.

“Drones that’ll communicate over Vodafone Idea’s LTE network will need to have a Vodafone Idea SIM card inserted into them. This SIM will be used to talk to other drones in the vicinity while providing much needed internet access to the drone’s UTM. It is here where Vodafone Idea is expected to make money, essentially by billing the drone company using its SIM for data costs,” they said. [emphasis ours]

If commercial BVLOS operations kick off, a telecom company such as Vodafone Idea could supply their services to hundreds of drone flying in the Indian airspace.

Vodafone is working on drones in Spain and UK

Vodafone has been quite active in the drone ecosystem, particularly in the EU, the third source said. The company had first piloted mobile tracking of drones using a 4G modem and SIM attached to a drone in Spain, back in November 2018. The system was capable of ascertaining whether a drone has veered off an agreed flight path, helping to safeguard aircraft, civilians, sensitive facilities and other drones.

Earlier this year, Vodafone UK’s CTO made the case for using SIM cards in BVLOS drones: “There are huge gains to be had from drones that are able to fly safely ‘beyond visual line of sight’; something that is possible via the safer and more secure alternative of cellular-connected drones with an inbuilt SIM card connecting them to a mobile network,” he had written in a blog post.

*Update at 9:04 pm: An earlier version of headline suggested that Vodafone is partnering with Zomato for the BVLOS ops, but sources quoted above later clarified that Vodafone was actually partnering with ClearSky consortium, of which Zomato is a partner too. Headline has been updated to reflect that change.