A recent report by Verizon and the FAA has proven that mobile connectivity is a valid and desirable form of control over drones and UAVs. A position paper released by Elsight last year also goes into detail on the different forms of communication as methods of control for drones, and reaches a similar conclusion, that mobile networks are the best solution for unmanned connectivity. Similarly, a paper by Ericsson from 2019 explores the topic and addresses the requirements needed to support drone operations.
This growing understanding that mobile networks can be used for drone C2 shows that we don’t need to create a new infrastructure in order to support the growing drone industry. It also places a new decision in the hands of drone operators seeking to operate their drones using mobile connectivity for command and control; whether to use a consumer SIM card or a SIM card designated for IoT use?
What is an IoT SIM Card?
An IoT SIM card is a variation of the SIM cards which are used in smartphones and other mobile devices, it includes additional features tailored specifically for IoT devices and has greater durability, security, and flexibility. Whereas consumer SIM cards are generally activated and operated on an individual basis, IoT SIMs must be able to be remotely managed and be able to be operated and activated in bulk. IoT SIM cards are built to survive“industrial” conditions that normal SIMs won’t be expected to encounter, including high and low temperatures, strong winds, rain and snow, and more.
It would seem then, that the decision between choosing a consumer or an IoT SIM is an easy one, with the IoT SIM being the clear winner. Consumer SIM cards do come with some advantages, though: lower latency and higher connection speeds reserved for consumer use, traffic priority, the ability to send voice as well as data, and IoT SIM cards are more expensive than consumer SIM cards. As a result, some drone operators are tempted to use consumer SIM cards for their drones – this can be a mistake for several reasons:
The first and most important reason why not to use a consumer SIM is that in almost all cases, using a consumer SIM for an IoT device likely violates the MNO’s (Mobile Network Operator) terms and conditions regarding use of the SIM card. The MNO’s will see this as abuse, shut you down, and you may possibly even incur fines from the MNO. Needless to say, having an MNO shut you down has repercussions beyond the immediate termination of activity. Your entire fleet will be grounded until you can secure a contract with a new MNO and you switch over all your SIM cards, incurring a massive financial loss as well as a hit to your company’s reputation.
Beyond that, by using a consumer SIM card for drone operations instead of an IoT SIM, you risk, and the MNO risks, enforcement action at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). The FCC is making it increasingly clear that they haven’t yet approved use of commercial wireless to support UAS operations.
Physical SIM Card Limitations
IoT SIM cards are more rugged and durable than consumer SIM cards, enabling them to withstand conditions experienced during drone flight. This includes being able to operate in temperatures ranging from -40°C to 105°C (-40°F to 221°F), as well as increased resistance to corrosion. IoT SIM cards can be expected to operate optimally even when encountering strong winds, intense vibrations, excessive movement, rain and humidity, all things which can occur during regular drone operations.
Another reason why not to use a consumer SIM in a drone, is that the majority of consumer data plans come with a limit on how much data you can use. Once that limit is reached the data speeds are severely slowed down, known as “throttling”. Generally not a concern for standard consumer users, who a) usually do not reach their data limits and b) have the ability to supplement their data usage with Wi-Fi to limit the use of their data plans – drones do not have these options.
Once a drone reaches the data limit and encounters throttling, this can severely endanger the drone once connectivity is lost. Operators can choose to purchase massive data plans to go along with their consumer SIMs to prevent throttling, but this then becomes prohibitively expensive and a losing proposition for any company seeking to achieve profitability, and regardless, in most cases the data plans offered to consumer customers are not suitable for the information being broadcast by drones.
While the temptation to use a consumer SIM card is understandable due to the lower latency and high connection speeds available to the consumer market, the downsides and potential ramifications of using a consumer SIM should make the decision to use an IoT SIM card the obvious choice.
-  www.ericsson.com/en/blog/2019/1/drones-and-networks-mobility-support
- The Future of BVLOS Operations by Elsight