AT&T plans to make drones more reliable by hooking them up to cell networks

AT&T plans to make drones more reliable by hooking them up to cell networks

The drones will be powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon Flight platform

The drones will be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight platform.

 New rules have made flying drones for business easier than ever before, but there is still a ways to go before regulators let them loose where operators can’t see them. More robust connections would certainly help nudge things along and usher in applications like drone deliveries, and AT&T believes it has a role to play. The company will soon kick off trials designed to test how drones perform on its commercial 4G LTE and future networks such as 5G.

In their current form, drones rely on Wi-Fi networks for communications, an approach that affords them some pretty decent range but does have its drawbacks. Recent research has shown that much of the time, breakdowns in the communications link are the cause of drone accidents, rather than human error. Researchers behind that particular study called for more robust communications systems, and it now appears that AT&T is on a similar wavelength.

Last week, US regulators introduced new laws that allow businesses to fly drones in the interests of profit, provided they don’t fly them beyond the line of sight (along with a few other caveats). This clears the way for applications like photography and surveying, but leaves others, namely drone deliveries, out of reach.

“Many of the anticipated benefits of drones, including delivery, inspections and search and rescue will require a highly secure and reliable connection,” says Chris Penrose, senior vice president, IoT Solutions at AT&T. “With a focus on both regulatory and commercial needs, LTE connectivity has the potential to deliver optimal flight plans, transmit flight clearances, track drone location and adjust flight routes in near real-time. Solving for the connectivity challenges of complex flight operations is an essential first step to enabling how drones will work in the future.”

AT&T has teamed up with Qualcomm for the effort and the drones will be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight platform, a developer board based on the Snapdragon 801 processor but built specifically for the next generation of drones. The trials will kick off later this month at Qualcomm Technologies’ San Diego research center under real-world conditions, which will include replicating residential, commercial and uninhabited areas along with controlled airspace.

“Not only do we aim to analyze wide-scalable LTE optimization for safe, legal commercial SUAS use cases with beyond line-of-sight connectivity, but the results can help inform positive developments in drone regulations and 5G specifications as they pertain to wide-scale deployment of numerous drone use cases,” says Matt Grob, executive vice president of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

Dr. Hans C. Mumm