Haute Couture Puts a New Spin on High End

Everyone knows that a drone can be a valuable tool for disaster relief, a method for package delivery, and even a sparkly addition to a Super Bowl halftime show.  But drones’ potential utility as a fashion accessory had been overlooked—until recently.  Luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana dazzled a crowd of fashion’s elite tastemakers at Milan Fashion Week when its show opened with quadcopters toting handbags down the runway.  And it seems fashionable drones are becoming on trend, as a fashion show in a Saudi Arabia luxury hotel recently employed drones to carry clothes down the runway. 

These show-stopping uses of drones did not run afoul of any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone rules, as the flights occurred in other countries.  And the FAA does not regulate indoor drone operations even in the U.S.  But these shows do raise an issue that has the potential to enable—or restrict—many types of drone operations in the U.S. for years to come. 

At the D&G show, event organizers reportedly asked audience members to turn off WiFi on their smartphones and any personal hot spots to avoid interference to the drones.  This may be because most drones today, and presumably the drones used in the fashion show, are controlled using publicly available, unlicensed spectrum such as WiFi.  Having too many WiFi enabled devices in a small space can cause problems for the drone control links, which puts a damper on these kinds of uses—after all, there aren’t too many places where it’s practical to delay proceedings while people dive into their settings and disable their WiFi.

But these types of limitations likely won’t be around forever.  As drone operations grow more complex and move to beyond visual line of sight flights, operators will need access to appropriate licensed spectrum for command and control of the aircraft. 

Although aeronautical radionavigation spectrum near 1,000 MHz and 5 GHz has been identified for drone command communications links, use of these bands has been delayed due to the lack of any U.S. licensing scheme or operation or technical rules to permit drone operators to access these frequencies.  And developing these rules will require input and coordination by three regulatory bodies: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the FAA.  These agencies will need to determine how to manage the spectrum in a dynamic way that will permit large numbers of users conducting diverse operations.  But use of the aeronautical spectrum is not necessary for all operations.  For lower-altitude small UAS operations, using the wireless carriers’ existing LTE networks is an attractive—and readily implementable—option.  But even in this scenario, FCC rule changes would be necessary to allow drones to use some of the commercial spectrum bands.      

Earlier this year, the Aerospace Industries Association filed a Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC urging the agency to adopt service rules for drone command and control using the 5030-5091 MHz band.  The comment cycle on this petition closed in June 2018 and it remains to be seen if the FCC will take action on spectrum for high altitude drones in the near future. In the meantime, the wireless carriers are participating in tests to use their LTE networks for command and control of low-altitude UAS.  Ultimately, whether drones are conducting rescue missions or sporting haute couture, the issue of spectrum for command and control will continue to loom. 

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