Flying drones might sound like a fun hobby, but some RF engineers are making it part of their job, going so far as to envision flying COWs, or cells on wings, to provide LTE coverage at concerts or during emergencies.
Earlier this month, AT&T announced the launch of a national trial involving drones in a program being overseen by Art Pregler, who serves as AT&T's drone program director and began his tech career in the U.S. Air Force. More trials are continuing, including this week.
AT&T started its LTE drone program investigation a year ago by inviting companies to the Seattle area to demonstrate their state-of-the-art technology at the time. AT&T built its drone program around existing technology as well as what they saw on the horizon.
The program involves the internal use of drones within AT&T, and the company has been conducting trials in various locations around the U.S., with results looking favorable, Pregler told FierceWirelessTech. By the end of September, AT&T hopes to transition to a fully operational model so anybody within AT&T's organization can use drones where they need them. "In the near term, our focus is on these use cases and making drones available internally," he said.
Longer term, it's investigating how to optimize the AT&T network to support command and control of in-flight drones across a range of industries. "We would like to see our network function as a backbone" of a drone traffic management system and drone data transmission system for industries like agriculture, construction, emergency services, insurance, logistics, package delivery, real estate, utilities and others.
The internal program is based on an outsourced vendor model, so AT&T is using a network of qualified vendors and each vendor has the requisite credentials, licensing and insurance required to fly drones under FAA rules. They're companies with expertise in both drone services and wireless communications networks, so they understand how to fly a drone safely as well as what to look for in a RAN and remote radio heads, he said.
In addition to providing data, the drones provide photographic imagery for AT&T to see what's going on with the gear on towers, for example. With a live video feed, that means a remote AT&T RF engineer can sit at his desk, look at his computer, see what's going on at a cell site through the camera on the drone and react accordingly.
While safety is a big deal, drones can also be used to inspect a tower before sending the climber up there, so they know which tools to bring before the climb, making it more efficient.
Pregler oversees the internal program, but another team, working on the Internet of Things (IoT), is looking externally to see how drones can support other industries. Drones are considered connected devices just like a connected car transmits data over its network. It's also about location information so the drones know where they are and can be part of a traffic management system.
Other operators are using drones as well, though none are currently talking publicly about the kind of program that AT&T is undertaking. Last year, T-Mobile U.S. CEO and President John Legere predicted that 2016 would see more practical uses for drones and noted that T-Mobile already uses drones to inspect towers in hard-to-reach areas.
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