Risks of Consumer SIM cards for drone operations

SIM card for drone operations

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Operating sUAS on mobile networks is great – but what’s the right SIM card for drone operations?   The Case for IoT SIM cards.

A recent report by Verizon and the FAA indicates that mobile connectivity is a valid and desirable form of control over drones and UAVs. A paper by Ericsson from 2019 explores the topic and addresses the requirements needed to support drone operations.  Drone connectivity experts Elsight agree, in this position paper.

The use of mobile networks for drone C2 is good for the industry, as it does not require a whole new infrastructure.  Commercial drone operators using mobile connectivity for command and control need to ensure they have the right tools to ensure connectivity and make it work, including the right SIM card.

Standard consumer SIM cards are cheaper and have higher connection speeds and lower latency.  Consumer SIM cards also have limitations on data and could be risky for commercial drone ops.  IoT SIM cards – designed for commercial and industrial use – might be a safer bet.

What is an IoT SIM card – and What’s the Difference?

An IoT SIM card is a variation of the SIM cards which are used in smartphones and other mobile devices.  It includes additional features tailored specifically for IoT devices and has greater durability, security, and flexibility. Whereas consumer SIM cards are generally activated and operated on an individual basis, IoT SIMs must be able to be remotely managed and be able to be operated and activated in bulk. IoT SIM cards are built to survive in more “industrial” conditions that normal SIMs won’t be expected to encounter, including high and low temperatures, strong winds, rain and snow, and more.

That might make IoT SIM cards seem like an obvious choice, but consumer SIM cards do come with some advantages: for consumer use, they offer lower latency and higher connection speeds, traffic priority, and the ability to send voice as well as data.  IoT SIM cards are also more expensive than consumer SIM cards.

(This article from Technology for Learners provides more information: this piece from Hologram.io (a vendor) also does a decent job laying out differences.)

The Risks of Consumer SIM cards: Regulatory limits

The biggest problem with consumer SIM cards is that in almost all cases, using a consumer SIM for an IoT device likely violates the mobile network operator (MNO) terms and conditions regarding use of the SIM card.  That’s a risk for commercial operators, as an MNO could decide to close the account or even impose fines.  That’s a significant risk for commercial operators: it would require grounding the fleet until a new contract is procured and all SIM cards are replaced.

The network operator is not the only party who may cause a problem.  The FCC hasn’t yet approved use of commercial wireless to support UAS operations. Businesses who use a consumer SIM card for drone operations instead of an IoT SIM can risk enforcement action at the FCC – along with their MNO.

Physical SIM card limitations

In addition to regulatory issues, IoT SIM cards are more rugged and durable than consumer SIM cards – which means that IoT cards are more able to withstand a wide variety of flight conditions.  IoT SIM cards can operate in temperatures ranging from -40°C to 105°C (-40°F to 221°F), and offer increased resistance to corrosion. IoT SIM cards can be expected to operate optimally even when encountering strong winds, intense vibrations, excessive movement, rain and humidity, all things which one can expect to occur during regular drone operations.


Finally, there’s the issue of data.  Lots of data.  The majority of consumer data plans come with a limit on how much data you can use: once that limit is reached the data speeds are severely slowed down, known as “throttling”.   Most consumers don’t have to worry about throttling, because they a) usually do not reach their data limits and b) have the ability to supplement their data usage with Wi-Fi to limit the use of their data plans.  Drones do not have these options. Once a drone reaches the data limit and encounters throttling, this can seriously effect drone connectivity and endanger the drone.

A massive data plan might help, but that’s an expensive proposition.  Consumer data plans aren’t generally designed for commercial drone operations.

While the temptation to use a consumer SIM card is understandable due to the low latency and high connection speeds available to the consumer market, the downsides and potential ramifications of using a consumer SIM make an IoT SIM card a safer choice for scalable – and reliable – commercial drone operations.

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