How drone delivery could mess with the world's WiFi - how to protect your business

August 3, 2018 Steven Heinsius

Picture a not-too-distant automated future where delivery trucks aren't just filled with the goods they'll deliver, but also contain the method by which the goods will arrive at your door: drones. A drone flies out of a moving truck and hovers above your porch to deliver your monthly supply of vitamins, paper towels, and protein bars.

While that scenario isn’t a reality quite yet, it’s coming – and soon. Commercial drones in the United States already are approved for many uses, including rescue operations, bridge and utility inspections, aerial photography, farming, research, development, and education. Large companies like Amazon, UPS, Google, and Wal-Mart hope to be cleared for takeoff by next year. Once that happens, the floodgates will open.

Drones: the good news and the bad

Clearly, drones – sometimes called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Miniature Pilotless Aircraft – are becoming more and more important to today’s world. They provide many benefits, from improving shipping and delivery to saving lives.

What is less well known is that drones can severely interfere with WiFi signal strength and coverage, causing significant problems for businesses and private citizens.

Drones operate on WiFi – usually in the 2.4GHz spectrum – and the problem is that small businesses and residences also use WiFi in the 2.4GHz spectrum.

Because drones use nearly 100 per cent airtime, there is a very real potential for WiFi interference, since airtime can only be used by one device at a time. And when a drone interferes with a business’s WiFi, productivity immediately nosedives.

For example, if a drone flies over a warehouse that relies on barcode scanning, the communication between the scanners and base station will immediately cease, because the airtime will be taken by the drone.

How can we solve this problem? 

Steven Heinsius, lead for software-defined access for EMEAR at Cisco, tested his theory that only residences and small businesses would be adversely affected because they tend to rely on residential-grade wireless access points they get from carriers or big box stores.

These access points are missing the technology – Radio Resource Management (RRM) – that can solve the problem, Heinsius thought.

To test his theory, Heinsius started his own private drone near an enterprise-grade Cisco network with RRM and Cisco’s CleanAir spectrum analyzer. “It worked, and I realised that the moment my WiFi saw the interference from the drone it immediately changed channels to avoid the interference,” he said.

This problem isn’t going away; in fact, it will only grow. According to the FAA, there may be as many as seven million drones in operation by 2020.

Drone-interference solutions for small businesses

So what can a small business do? One obvious solution is upgrading to enterprise-grade wireless access points that incorporate RRM technology. Other alternatives are using the 5GHz spectrum as much as possible; using only channels 1, 6 and 11 on the 2.4GHz spectrum; avoiding 100 percent power; positioning access points horizontally and away from obstructions, and upgrading to 802.11ac when it makes sense to do so.

There are other steps small businesses can take, but they can be labour-intensive. These including painting the outside of your doors with metal paint and replacing standard window glass with aluminum-framed tinted windows.

Ideally, drone manufactures and operators will bear some responsibility. Heinsius suggests that drones should be built for the 5GHz band and that wireless carriers begin supplying customers with RRM-capable access points.

Drones are a fast-growing category of ‘connected assets’ and have the ability to radically transform service and field operations for many industrial markets.  Investing in the drone ecosystem offers unique market insights and allows Cisco to further support our industrial customers in their adoption of IoT and their digital transformation journey.

For more on how Cisco technology can help your business, visit our dedicated page for Small and Medium Businesses.  And if you'd like to stay up to date with the latest technology trends and innovation sign up for our regular newsletter.

About the Author

Steven Heinsius

Steven is the Sales Lead for Europe, Middle East, Africa & Russia for the 'SDA100'. The 100 High Priority Customers adopting Intent Based Networking. Together with his team he helps customers successfully adopt the new IBN Networking technology. Steven is a well known speaker at events and seminars and was awarded the distinguished speaker award five times.

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