Taking Flight with Connected Drones: AT&T Foundry Envisions the Future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

May 11, 2016
By Igal Elbaz

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), you may know them as drones, are ready to soar. They’re a hit with hobbyists and becoming an important tool in business. How? They shoot videos and photos, inspect hard-to-reach locations like oil pipelines and research weather. But we’ve only scratched the surface.

Network connectivity could give drones a major boost. At Mobile World Congress we said we’re working with others in the industry to test our network at higher altitudes. We’re studying how the network can address today’s challenges and support tomorrow’s opportunities. Changes to FAA regulations governing UAVs may be required to achieve the full potential of some of these capabilities. The FAA also refers to drones as “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS).

Right now, we know much more about network coverage on the ground than we do at heights drones fly. Foundry engineers are using predictive analysis and measurement tools to study urban, rural and suburban areas in the sky like we do on the ground. We’re planning to use balloons, drones, and tall buildings to gather this data safely. With that data, we can better understand the strength and characteristics of network coverage for drones in flight.

Here are some of the potential opportunities we see for connected drones:

  • Improving Safety: Ensuring drones are connected, identified and managed makes the airspace safer for drones, planes and the people below them. Connectivity could help drone pilots comply with flight restrictions and avoid airplane and helicopter traffic.

  • Assisting Emergency Response: Network connectivity can help drones transfer critical information, images and video more quickly and efficiently. Imagine firefighters getting a live, overhead view of a forest fire so they can map it and contain it.  
  • Enabling Industry: Delivery, agriculture, construction and insurance companies are showing interest in drones. But those companies need drones that can be more connected and used at distances further away from their operators. We’ll study how the cellular network can assist with making this happen.
  • Drones for Good: Other creative uses for drones include mapping habitats of orangutans in rainforests and delivering medicine to remote parts of the developing world. We’re eager to push work like this even further. 

Drone pilots use short-range radio frequency (RF) or Wi-Fi to communicate with their vehicles today. The LTE connection for drones would be the same cellular network your smartphone uses. That gives you longer range for communications. It also gives you stronger security. With the AT&T wireless network, the signal requires authentication and encryption.

Our drone research is conducted out of the AT&T Foundry in Palo Alto in collaboration with our Internet of Things Solutions group. Stay tuned for more news as our drone projects get off the ground!

Igal Elbaz - Vice President - Ecosystem and Innovation, AT&T Services, Inc. 


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