Verizon wasn’t saying much about drones a year or so ago, but now it’s sharing some of the ways in which it’s employing an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to improve its network. Namely, it’s using drones not only for emergency management and tower inspections, but for stadium assessments as well.
Verizon conducted its first drone venue inspection at the Circuit of the America’s (COTA) racetrack in Austin, Texas, last month, to measure network coverage ahead of a major Oct. 21-23 event. Verizon didn’t name the event in its blog post, but the venue hosted a Formula One event that weekend that featured evening entertainment provided by Taylor Swift and Usher & The Roots – if that’s any indication of the kinds of network traffic it saw outside of the actual races. (During a keynote at the CTIA Super Mobility 2016 trade show in September, CTIA President and CEO Meredith Atwell Baker noted that a single Taylor Swift concert in San Francisco saw nearly 4 terabytes of mobile traffic.)
At the event in Austin, a drone carried two smartphones to test Verizon’s LTE network and record data. The inspection took about 50 percent less time than it would normally take to walk the venue in a traditional test scenario. The drones were able to fly easily over a large concert area, rows of bleachers and spectator areas still under construction.
The reduction in inspection time is similar to what AT&T has seen in its drone work in stadiums. The operator this year began replacing its human testing process, which could take up to five days, with a drone-driven process that can whittle the process down to one day.
Operators these days often contract with firms that are experts in UAS and carry the requisite regulatory authority and permissions. In Verizon’s case, a company called Measure owns and operates the quadcopter-style UAS used in the COTA inspection; the company uses different types of drones based on the flight needs. These particular drones weighed 55 pounds or less and can capture HD video images and network performance data. Measure’s two-person crew includes a ground pilot and a visual observer.
Verizon also used a UAS at Cape May Airport in New Jersey to test the delivery of 4G LTE network coverage from the drone itself, as it was acting essentially as a small cell site in the sky. That was the first-ever test with Verizon’s Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) during an emergency management and disaster recovery exercise. Verizon says the test proved that 4G LTE coverage can be provided from an aircraft to first-responders in the event no traditional service is available.
That implementation used a 17-foot wingspan RS-20 UAS, owned and operated by American Aerospace Technologies Inc. (AATI), with pilots controlling it from the ground. The UAS was approved by the FAA to fly up to 7,500 feet but was tested with Verizon’s network at 3,000 feet and below. (The aircraft is capable of flying up to 22,000 feet.) The UAS is connected back to Verizon’s network, not for piloting, but for providing a 4G LTE signal to emergency personnel through the aircraft, Verizon explained.
Small unmanned aircraft systems also were used to conduct cell site inspections in the Carolinas in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. The aerial footage allowed rapid assessment of any damage to cell sites that were inaccessible by land due to the flood waters.