Pierre de Vries: Drones in a 3D Wireless World

As we head into the last few months before the Bay Area Hackfest in November, this blog will feature a series of abstracts of the talk that our speakers, each of them a thoughtful and engaging expert in their field, will be sharing in November.

a photograph of Pierre de Vries
Pierre de Vries
Executive Fellow and Co-director of the Spectrum Policy Initiative
Silicon Flatirons Center

The Bay Area Hackfest is making flying spectrum objects programmable. I will offer three contexts for the blending of software defined radio (SDR) and drones: the growing 3D volume being occupied by radios on planes and satellites; the regulatory consequences when SDR, spectrum, and aviation converge; and fusing software simulations and real-world radios into mirror worlds.

1. Drones are just one piece of a complicated 3D puzzle. Radio management used to be mostly a 2D game. However, a wave of innovation in airborne and orbiting systems – from low-altitude drones to broadband platforms in the stratosphere to thousand-satellite low-earth-orbit constellations to a new generation of high-throughput satellites in geostationary orbit – is making traffic management a complex 3D problem. The risk of both physical and RF collisions (interference) requires new protocols and governing institutions. Drone operations could learn from satellites, and vice versa.

2. Innovation poses policy challenges to regulators. Spectrum-programmable flying objects will force changes in FCC and FAA rules. Policy makers’ understanding of SDR and drone technology will determine, and probably constrain, what engineers will be able to do. The risks of new technology are much more salient to regulators than are the benefits. The SDR/drone community should engage with regulators to help them understand the promise as well as the risks of the technology, and to craft well-informed rules that support progress.

3. Today, there is no alternative to testing prototypes in a real environment as the Hackfest is doing. The world is so messy and complex that current channel models and processing tools aren’t good enough to build simulations that can bear the weight of designing and managing systems. However, just as David Gelernter’s “Mirror Worlds” forecasts the day that software puts the universe in a shoebox, we should dream of the day when RF Mirror Worlds can put the Hackfest Hangar in a hatbox. As this technology matures, it will change not just how flying programmable radios are designed, but also how they are managed and regulated.