Vodafone Christmas drone

Vodafone’s 4G Sleigh

Operator’s Santa Drone Is a Fun Show of Future Opportunities

It’s a time of year that offers a good chance to roll out a fun, festive story wrapped up with a little bit of technology, and it seems Vodafone UK has jumped on the bandwagon with a 4G-equipped “Santa” drone.

The UK operator recently put on a demonstration of a drone, with Santa Claus onboard, delivering Christmas gifts over a 4G network rather than Wi-Fi or a proprietary wireless technology. Note that Vodafone’s announcement came only a few days before drone sightings at London Gatwick Airport caused mayhem, bringing flights to a standstill and stranding thousands of passengers.

Vodafone's Christmas drone

Vodafone’s Christmas drone

There’s no doubt that Vodafone’s move is a shameless gimmick, but I think of it as an entertaining display of how the various aspects of the technology it offers are evolving and could be used in the future. And, as a drone enthusiast, I’m always interested to see companies harnessing these flying machines in new ways.

Reading between the lines, Vodafone’s move was about underlining the progress it has made with the deployment of 4G coverage in remote areas of the UK. After many years on the back foot, Vodafone is determined to regain momentum. It has made a significant investment over the past two years to try and close the gap with arch-rival EE on network coverage and quality. This went hand in hand with efforts to improve its customer service, which has got it into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Vodafone’s hoping to turn this around by giving its chatbot TOBi a bigger role in customer care (see TOBi or Not TOBi).

Vodafone’s showcase was also about proving that cellular networks are capable of being used for much more than connecting smartphones. Throughout 2018 the operator has launched several devices under the Internet of things umbrella through its V by Vodafone initiative. This has seen it marketing things like bag trackers, dog trackers, connected cameras and more.

Despite being a one-time concept for now, the 4G drone is a further example of this. And there are some interesting possible applications, many of which have been talked about in the past by numerous companies. They include transporting emergency supplies or medicines over vast distances, or, in the case of this demonstration by Vodafone, delivering Christmas crackers to a lonely volunteer looking out for boats on the UK’s southern coastline.

Of course, this quickly leads to an opportunity for the network to plug its 5G aspirations. Like others, Vodafone is keen promote its efforts here. It’s too early right now, but in the much-hyped utopian world where 5G coverage is ubiquitous, a cellular network would be even more attractive for real-time drone-flying thanks to its low latency and extensive capacity.

As we enter 2019, one thing is certain: there’ll be no end to the ways in which mobile networks will be used. The Santa drone was definitely an amusing way to see out 2018. But on a more serious note, with sales of mobile phone slowing and consumers getting weary of paying any more for their mobile subscriptions, it’s clear that Vodafone and others need to have an eye on fresh opportunities. Cellular-enabled drones might play a role, but I’m sure that a plethora of everyday devices will all eventually be equipped with some kind of connectivity, and that offers potential for growth to all mobile network operators.

CCS Insight will be back in the New Year with more opinion on hot topics. We wish you a merry Christmas and a prosperous 2019!