Inmarsat launches innovation programme to explore commercial UAV market

20 February 2019: Inmarsat has launched a grassroots innovation programme to explore the role of satellite communication in the commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market. Joined by ‘Pop-up Lab’ partners Cobham and Starburst, Inmarsat will team up with seven UAV companies to integrate L-band connectivity and carry out trials with high profile customers from the oil and gas industry, emergency relief sector and other commercial user groups.

Silent Falcon’s UAV platform, pictured, is one of seven companies taking part to explore video capable BVLOS satcoms

The UAV platforms will utilise Cobham’s AVIATOR UAV 200 airborne terminal and EXPLORER ground system to fly ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS) missions and transmit real-time video using Inmarsat’s global coverage network – ideal for customers with operations in remote areas or rough terrains.

Public showcase event

The trials will demonstrate the value of satellite-enabled UAVs with use-cases such as oil rig inspection and wildfire mapping in the US. Participating UAV companies include RPAS Service, FlyLogix, and Intrepid Minds (UK), Robot Aviation (Norway), Alpha Unmanned Systems (Spain), A-Techsyn (Ireland) and Silent Falcon (USA).

The outcomes of the UAV Pop-up Lab will be presented at a large-scale showcase and industry event at Inmarsat’s London HQ on 30 May 2019. The event will include keynote speakers from across the sector and serve as a forum to explore how satellite and UAV technology can benefit private sector companies and humanitarian organisations.

Jordan Picard, Digital Incubation Lead, Inmarsat Product Group, said: “The market for commercial UAVs is set for explosive growth and we expect satellite will play a critical role for UAVs operating in remote areas where terrestrial networks are limited. This aligns with our historical leadership in global mobile satellite communications and positions us well to enable a major growth area in the 21st-century economy.”

Market opportunity

PwC research indicates that by 2030, in the UK alone, the UAV industry will generate £42bn in incremental GDP, just a small fraction of the global market opportunity presented by UAV technology.

Andrew Legg, Regional Sales Director at Cobham, remarked: “While many UAV’s will rely on terrestrial based connectivity solutions, they often operate beyond-line-of-sight of point to point digital data links and out of coverage of ground networks.

“Many of these airframes are compromised by connectivity shortcomings and the addition of a high reliability, light footprint satcom solution enables a broader theatre of operation and strategic value for the airframe. This is especially true for UAV’s being used by organisations operating in remote parts of the globe such as the energy sector or humanitarian aid agencies.”

Major driver

While the commercial UAV market is destined to become a major driver in the digital economy of the 21st century, a number of barriers remain. Most significantly, many countries have yet to introduce legal frameworks to efficiently regulate UAV flight operations and manufacturing activities.

This has led to an environment where most UAV flights have to be within visual line of sight or require special exemptions in cleared air space to operate, limiting widespread commercial deployment. Despite these challenges, start-ups around the world have started building affordable UAVs for use by businesses.

Francois Chopard, CEO of Starburst Accelerator, said: “The UAV market is very exciting due to the bottom-up emergence of start-ups focused on making UAVs economically accessible to users outside of the military domain. The UAV Pop-up Lab is a fantastic way to work with these start-ups to develop propositions that will bring this market to maturity as regulatory certainty improves in the future.”

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