Apple files patent request for drone (networking) tech

The diversity and depth of Apple products at times suggests there’s no limit to what kind of tech the company can produce, or what new activities it might decide to get involved with. Now, a new patent filing raises the question of whether Apple is contemplating a launch into the drone sector – albeit a defined and contained part of it.

A filing with the US Patent and Trademark Office published today lists Apple Inc. as the copyright applicant of a document titled “Systems and Methods for Using Unmanned Aerial Systems In Cellular Networks.” The petition is a seriously but deeply technical description that runs on for a finger-crampingly long page scroll. As such, it’s the kind of reading only wireless communication engineers could love (much less understand). But the Cliff Notes for Geek-o-Speak Dummies thrust of it details a network connecting drones, controllers, and mobile communication systems. 

The abstract from the filing – which was made on August 9 – is supposed to be a tad more accessible than the body of the document:

Systems and methods provide for provisioning services for an unmanned aerial system (UAS) in a 3GPP network, enabling communication for command and control in 5G systems, and enabling UAS service for identification and operation in a 3GPP system. 

Conceptual drawings accompanying the petition illustrate procedures for “UAS operation service request in accordance with one embodiment,” “notifying UAS operation status in 5GS in accordance with one embodiment,” “notifying UAS operation status in EPS in accordance with one embodiment,” and so on. Hope that made things clearer.

Thursday’s patent publication follows one granted in March involving tech to keep drones connected to mobile communications systems as they pass between different cells. Or as the filing put it:

Techniques are described for improving handover performance in the context of UEs incorporated into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones). A database is constructed that relates locations in a three-dimensional flying space to handover information that may include optimum scanning directions, optimum handover parameters, and/or optimum target cells to be monitored for possible handover. 

Easy, peasy lemon squeezy.

So is all this activity a hint that Apple may be getting involved in the drone sector soon? It would seem to – at least in terms of communications networking. The obvious, indeed stated applications of the two patents outlined above involve connecting to UAVs while in flight – a frontier to which Apple has never gone before (at least not via rotors). It therefore seems reasonable to assume all that tech groundwork being laid will result in it actually being used sooner or later.

It would, however, require a massive speculative leap to suggest that were Apple to indeed strike out into drone networking, a logical follow-through would ultimately be the development of craft themselves. After all, the company seems content with its current selling of DJI UAV on its sites, with iPhones or iPads being the logical link to controllers dealt. 

Specialized media, meanwhile, note that the March patent grant could have been a baked-in part of Apple’s acquisition of Intel’s 5G modem unit in July 2019, and ergo not indicative of the Cupertino giant’s own plans. So it may all just be Apple considering the possibility of flexing its tech expertise in an applicable area of an industrial activity it otherwise has nothing to do with, and isn’t thinking about entering. 

Still, the UAV patent filings offer too great an excuse to resist the temptation of indulgently fantasizing about how cool something called an Apple drone might be.

Photo: Trac Vu

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