We’ve explored what opportunities exist for commercial drone operators across Europe, and while regulation is a key factor in seeing those opportunities realized, there are logistical hurdles that also need to be sorted out. The mobile telecommunication industry might be able to provide significant help in terms of navigating these hurdles, and Sebastian Babiarz is committed to driving innovation within that industry.
As the Head of Drone Business, Advanced Mobile Network Solutions at Nokia, Sebastian is committed to help create and develop an infrastructure for a connected society that will allow for a true Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem to come together. Nokia is a member of the Global UTM Association, and the details around how that kind of system can and will support commercial drone operations is something Sebastian is focused on enabling. He is also set to serve as a member of the jury for the Drone Hero Europe 2017 contest, which will allow participants to demonstrate their drone applications to an audience of highly qualified potential customers and/or partners.
In anticipation of the contest and some of the sessions focused on telecommunications set to take place at Commercial UAV Europe in June, I caught up with Sebastian to discuss how the telecom industry is using drones today and how that will change moving forward. We also discussed what kind of an impact a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system will have on the industry, what he’s looking forward to seeing at the Drone Hero Europe contest and plenty more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Can you tell us about your 12 years of experience in the telecom industry? How have you seen this industry grow and change?
Sebastian Babiarz: I can’t believe it’s been 12 years! Time really does fly, but it’s a good thing.
My experience starts just after University where I was studying electronic communications. When I got started we were on the first and second generation of the mobile network. At that time I was not using a mobile phone everyday because it was still quite expensive, but it was something that had everyone excited because we could see where it was going. With the development of 3G, I saw an incredible amount of advancement with more integrations of hardware with the base stations and even with end-to-end implementation on the systems.
This most recent stage of my career is interesting, because from this very conservative market, which is the mobile network, I’ve seen a concerted effort from all the vendors to attack whatever solution they’re focused on to their core business. Whatever that solution might be, there’s always communication behind it, and that makes sense because they’re focusing on delivering the best services and best infrastructure. So it’s different, but they’re still focused on providing new functionality that can appropriately serve something much bigger.
How do drones factor into that?
We’ve been able to make a vertical innovation concept related to drones and drive the attention around the technology to the whole company. Many are now focused on the drone and how to build the business around them. Previously, a company like Nokia would never have looked at that.
This has allowed me to bring value and create a bridge between the technology and the telecommunication industry, which is strictly focused on their core business of communications. We’re developing drone solutions which make sense for us, and that sometimes causes confusion with the rest of the industry, because they’re not looking at the technology from the same perspective as we are.
That “bridge” between the industry and the technology is a great topic. How do you see the innovation happening in the drone space directly impact what’s happening in the telecom industry?
The drone story at Nokia started a few years ago when we were looking at drones to do simple Mobile Network cell towers inspections. There was a natural interest, because everybody saw how the drone could do things like capture video and fly somewhere where people can’t easily go. It’s a natural way to use drones. There was and is great potential to send info to the people that can fix what the drones uncover.
But there’s another area drones can be used, and that’s with measurement. Operators are looking at how to use drones to help measure Mobile Network performance and the coverage of the network, because it’s very important for operators to deliver the best service. Drones can serve as this measurement airborne tool of the network, which brings significant information for the operators but also for the vendors like Nokia. This process optimizes the network and helps to deliver the best quality. It is extremely important to optimize the network for drone connectivity. This is also the area where we started focusing in the first steps of this innovation with the drone. Later on we realized that this is not going to happen so easy because there are a lot of obstacles, and regulation is the major one.
Yes, what can you tell us about those regulatory obstacles?
Regulation gets better and better, but the objective from my perspective for the drones are to see them fly autonomously, and that can be a major part of a UTM system. Before the Global UTM Association came together, everybody was talking about their own vision of a UTM, but to make it tangible, you have to start putting some specifications on paper. This was the trigger to set up the association, but many pieces need to be put together to get this up and running.
These systems need to be very reliable, and once this is done, the regulation can be set up so it all works properly. Of course, it cannot happen in steps, it needs to happen in parallel. Otherwise, the industry will not jump into the business and not make the investment because if you have no backing for the regulation and no vision for where it’s going, no one is going to pay for it, and this is what we’re facing right now.
I recently connected with Global UTM Secretary General Benoit Curdy for an interview, and one of the things that stuck out to me was figuring out how regulation can and should be part of this system. How do you see regulation being part of this system?
I think regulation has to be there because we are living in an environment where you have to set some rules to be clear how you can operate it. Of course, you have to support these regulations with the right technology and the right technology is the sort of UTM functionality that all drones should have. Once they start flying autonomously it means that they have to get the information from the cloud, and that means being able to pull in specific info related to regulation for that area.
We have to have something that allows drones to fly in an organized way and understand where the drones can fly, where they should not fly, etc. Drones will be able to “see” in the sense of the cameras and sensors that are on-board, but information in a grander sense needs to be delivered to them. The UTM will play a piece in that role because it delivers services related to how and where the drone should fly based on regulation. That’s not all though, because the extended UTM will also be delivering information about the weather, upcoming obstacles, manned aircraft and plenty more.
Will the development of that UTM system enable the creation of a true Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem?
UTM is a piece of the IoT, but for fleet management, which is where the drone can deliver on the concept of a real IoT system, a few things need to happen before it can come together.
The major thing for the IoT is communication. This is what telecom companies are working on because without exchanging the data, you don’t really have an IoT. So this is the huge topic to discuss, because connectivity is such a critical issue. With everything going toward 5G, we should be at a level which can support this IoT with future amounts of data going through the network, but to get there, the communication part needs to be solved. The whole industry is working on 5G but before it comes, LTE will play major role. There’s a lot of ongoing research to foster LTE for IoT and many other new applications, Public Safety being one of them.
And what role does the drone play in this IoT ecosystem?
I do believe the drone can play a significant role in the IoT. It won’t be the most important part, because ultimately the drones are just carrying sensors which stream info to cloud computing systems that can then be utilized to make decisions. In that way drones can be thought of as flying sensors, which is a simplistic but accurate way of thinking of it.
To support this system, the drone has to be free to fly. It means that the UTM has to be in place starting with the communication because for me, communication is the base for any kind of future drone solution or any kind of IoT solution. Everything is based on the communication and how we can collaborate.
Speaking of collaboration, you’re set to serve as a member of the jury for the Drone Hero Europe contest. What can you tell us about this contest?
It’s a really interesting thing, and it wasn’t something I was even aware of at first. Once I got the offer I took a closer look at what they were doing and got really excited because it’s all about innovation, which is such a great story. Innovation brings about so many different changes in people’s lives and the world as a whole. Promoting that innovation is critical, and that’s why the contest is such a great thing for the industry.
For me, it’s exciting because people can promote their own vision, and if they succeed with the right investment, they’ll go far. So I really like the concept.
So the contest is really about allowing participants to showcase a vision of where things need to go with the industry and drone technology, isn’t it?
Yes, and the contest itself is great because it can give them some necessary perspective. When you’re just asking friends and colleagues, it can be tough to get the kind of feedback you really need. If you go to a wider audience, the feedback can be a bit more objective and impactful. It’s especially relevant when the people who are providing that feedback are coming from different industries and different perspectives. It provides participants with another level of evaluation for their vision and concept so that everyone can understand whether or not they have merit.
It’s going to be a great experience, because you really have no idea where things are going to go, but there’s plenty of reason to be excited about it. It makes for a delightful story for everyone.
Other than the Drone Hero Europe contest, what are you most looking forward to seeing and experiencing at Commercial UAV Expo Europe?
I’m always looking forward to seeing what new ideas are going to be presented. I’ve seen the proposals for the sessions, and I think it’s going to be really valuable for attendees because this is another way for professionals to understand how this situation with the market is changing and which direction it’s going.