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April 3, 2023
Startup Aura is already operating a nationwide wireless network designed for future autonomous cargo drones.
"We're building a deterministic network," explained CEO Bill Tolpegin. He said the company's new network will be able to guarantee connections where customers need them along an aircraft's flight path. That, he said, is the "exact opposite" from how big 5G network providers operate. Typically, as 5G devices move around the country, those devices tell network operators where they need to offer services. Instead, in the Aura network, the network will tell the device where it should be, based on the flight path submitted by a customer.
"We will guarantee a signal in a specific space and time," Tolpegin explained. "We'll reserve that spectrum for you."
Aura recently inked a deal with Federated Wireless – which operates spectrum management tools in a growing number of bands – to deliver "deterministic connectivity links for both crewed and uncrewed applications."
Aura's network is in "version one," said Tolpegin, explaining that the company is still working with its customers and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to refine its offering. "I'd say it's the largest test network in the US," he said.
Tolpegin would know. He was previously the CEO of the C-Band Alliance (CBA), which worked to free satellite spectrum for 5G before the alliance fell apart. Prior to that, Tolpegin held leadership positions at a number of satellite, Internet and wireless companies including ICO Global Communications, EarthLink and Globalstar.
Build it and they will come
Tolpegin explained that Aura's network is primarily intended for aircraft of the future. Just as automakers and delivery companies are researching the possibility of driverless cars and drones, respectively, so too are aircraft companies looking toward a pilotless future. But autonomous and remote-controlled aircraft – whether they're hauling freight or passengers – will need some kind of dedicated, low-latency wireless network for communications. "There's a ton of different things you can do with these aircraft," Tolpegin said.
Tolpegin argued that today's satellite, cellular and air-to-ground networks (like those from Gogo or SmartSky) won't meet the needs of these future UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that operate BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight). "5G doesn't work for this," he said. "No one has really been thinking about this."
Figure 1: Aura's network is designed for cargo drones. Click here for a larger version of this image.
(Source: Aura. Used with permission.)
Founded in 2020, Aura raised roughly $30 million in a Series A funding round in 2021 and another $75 million in a Series B last year from the likes of Fortress Investment Group, Mudrick Capital Management and Tracker Capital Management. It used that cash to build a proprietary wireless network – with equipment from vendors in the aircraft industry – across roughly 57 transmission sites. Its network runs in a 1MHz sliver of the 450MHz band. Meaning, it can't support high-capacity data connections but it can cover wide geographic areas with voice and low-latency services.
"Later this decade you're going to see a lot of urban air mobility with these kinds of aircraft," Tolpegin said, explaining that Aura's network is designed to connect to aircraft flying above 500 feet.
What's old is new
"This spectrum had not been touched for a long time," Tolpegin said, explaining that he and other Aura executives spotted the company's spectrum in 2017 as it was being repurposed from legacy aviation uses like phone calls in private aircraft. "I was like, oh wow, this is perfect for drones," he said.
Aura isn't the only company looking to repurpose spectrum for new uses. For example, startup Anterix has collected a range of spectrum licenses in the 900MHz band and is working to build a billion-dollar business around licensing that spectrum to utilities and other customers.
Tolpegin said the FCC is currently evaluating a proposal that would allocate a small chunk of the 5GHz band for the kind of autonomous cargo drones that Aura is hoping to service. But Tolpegin said that effort won't affect Aura because the company's network sits in lowband 450MHz spectrum and will therefore provide a much different set of services. He said drone operators of the future will likely want communications in both the 5GHz band and the 450MHz band.
Looking ahead, Tolpegin said the company's goal is to work with regulators and its customers to refine and certify its operations. Such certifications, particularly from the FAA, will be critical to pushing cargo drones into the mainstream. "We're past the, 'does it work?' phase," he said.
Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading
Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.
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