Dr Juris Binde, president and chairman of the management board, LMT, shares his vision for the future

What’s the background to LMT becoming involved with drones?

LMT's involvement in drone innovation stretches back to the pre-5G era. Like many mobile operators, we had reached the upper end of the available market share and were looking for new ways to grow. We knew the arrival of 5G was inevitable, thus looked at the various potential 5G use cases: drones one of them. We started developing our drone capacity so that when 5G rolled around, we would be the first to have a product ready to serve clients in the new network.

How will drones help to monetise the company’s investment in 5G?

The topic of who should fund 5G has always been contentious. As a network that has the potential to bring immense value to society at large, and which requires extensive investments, it’s reasonable to raise the topic of funding. This conversation is ongoing and we’ve had to look at additional monetisation channels to regain expenses related to our 5G rollout. Drones are an excellent vehicle for monetisation, as there are many different income streams.

We’ve developed and continue to develop additional services, ranging from a drone pilot training programme for consumers, to working together with various state institutions, such as the Electronics Communications Office to use drones for radio frequency measurements, as well as the Latvian Civil Aviation Agency to develop systems for integrating drones into common airspace.

As Europe’s first MNO to issue drone pilot licences, how does this fit within your overall strategy?

One of the key prerequisites to accelerate and scale drone solution adoption is flight safety. That includes safety of the technology itself, and the drone pilot’s ability to execute safe flights. The level of technological development for the
most part rests on the shoulders of the manufacturers and industry partners as a whole. However, it’s the responsibility
of pilots and companies that wish to use drones to ensure the education of pilots, as well as understanding and adhering
to existing regulations. This often creates an additional burden for these companies and slows their ability to make decisions regarding the use of good drone solutions.

We look at each new drone user as a potential future client. To make this journey easier for them, we’ve created the LMT Drone Pilot Academy, where they can learn the skills to take their first step towards drone solution use.

Please expand on the types of services you foresee related to drones

In addition to the mobile network as a communications channel for drone solutions, it would be possible to offer services related to shared airspace monitoring and security. One example would be implementing network remote ID devices in the mobile network.

Our infrastructure could be used to deploy additional devices for air space monitoring and improved flight safety, such as meteorological stations or identification signal receivers for piloted aircraft. We’ve developed a platform for drone pilots and operators that can be used to monitor your drone fleet. We plan to add flight request and permit issuing functionalities. We’re also looking in the direction of computer vision, which will add to drone application opportunities and will help companies automate specific tasks, faster and more safely.

Who would be your target customers for these services?

We suspect that the largest part of our client base would be governmental structures, law enforcement institutions, emergency services and private sector companies. A portion of the services will be relevant to private drone pilots as well.

Would your BVLOS mobile network predictions map be provided to ‘subscribers’ of a service or open to the public?

Offering mobile connectivity to our clients is our core business. The mobile network predictions map in airspace is one of these future services, which we would like to offer. This service is still being developed. However, we see that some part of the service, such as the general information about network availability in the air, could be made publicly available. Another part of the service, such as precise network availability for a specific flightpath (a requirement to prove the safety of the flight to regulating institutions), would be available on a subscription basis.

Tell us more about LMT’s partnership with LGS on the GOF 2.0 program to remotely pilot a drone crossing borders with the use of BVLOS while supporting mobile infrastructure hand offs

The GOF 2.0 program is aimed at researching, developing and testing solutions for integrated airspace, where both unmanned and manned aircraft operate together. This is mostly restricted by air traffic authorities due to the unpredictability of drones and their potential to disrupt air traffic. We believe that with transparency and the right systems, the two can co-exist and that drones operating in the mobile network are a prerequisite for that.

Through software, drone locations would be visualised and drone operators would also be provided with appropriate and accepted flight paths. We’ve already held successful demonstrations together with the GOF 2.0 consortium in the vicinity of the Riga International Airport, and demonstrated scenarios including co-ordinated manned and unmanned flights, first responder UAS operations and various business cases, such as construction site and freeport drone inspections.

There was also the Comp4Drones demonstration from Spain using the LMT network to remotely pilot drones from another country.

The integration of drone services in our everyday lives depends first on developing the ability to fly drones BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight). Currently, you can only fly a drone as far as you can see it, but the lack of systems and legislation controlling BVLOS flight means that autonomous drone flight cannot be meaningfully rolled out in society.
The Spain-Latvia remote drone piloting was a demonstration aimed at solving one of the many obstacles in BVLOS flight – flying in areas with unconfirmed or not measured network coverage. By validating network coverage forecasting and remote route validation functions, we were able to solve one uncertainty regarding remote drone flight, proving that it could successfully be done even at a distance of more than 3,500km.

What are you most excited about for the year ahead?

Due to geopolitical realities exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’re seeing the mobile industry interact with the defence industry more than ever. If previously the civilian and military industries did not overlap, we’re now seeing what we call the “smartphonisation of war”, and the defence industry looks to us to implement the next generation of communications solutions. We’ve already held several demonstrations together with the defence industry at our military 5G testbed, including a demonstration with NATO in the autumn. 5G will play a meaningful role in the future of defence, and we’re ready to play our role to ensure the safety of our society.


Main image credit: Drone innovation lead Gints Jakovels prepares a drone for the first cross- border drone flight LMT

Article originally published in Air Traffic Management magazine, issue 1, 2023.  Want to receive all of the latest stories as soon as they are published? Register now for your free digital subscription.