The Wild Wireless World of Drones

Cell phone companies have long been interested in using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS or drones) to conduct inspections of cell phone towers.  Now, many of these companies are making progress on a new initiative – using their mobile spectrum to control drones.  Terrestrial wireless networks are a promising option to support extended-range UAS missions, including drone package deliveries. 

The vast majority of drones flying today rely on Wi-Fi networks for their command and control and payload.  As drones develop more sophisticated capabilities and are able to fly longer, higher, and farther, industry observers have wondered: is Wi-Fi up to the job?  Or will a new source of spectrum be necessary to support increasingly ambitious drone operations?  Various spectrum options exist for controlling drones, including spectrum allocated for aeronautical use at the L- and C-bands.  In addition, some have suggested using wireless carriers’ existing terrestrial spectrum as a possible solution to this spectrum quandary.  Proponents state that this solution is attractive because the infrastructure has already been built out by the wireless carriers, although it may need to be optimized to support airborne flights rather than cellular device use.  Ultimately, this may not be a case of either/or.  As the industry grows and evolves, it may be that both cellular networks and dedicated spectrum in the L- or C-bands will have a role in supporting different UAS operations.

Two wireless carriers—AT&T and Verizon—recently announced plans to conduct tests to determine whether their existing LTE networks could support drone flights.  Federal agencies and regulators including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are likely to be interested in the results of these tests and trials. 

In September, AT&T and Qualcomm announced a collaboration to test the capabilities of drones equipped with AT&T’s LTE cellular modems and a version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight drone development platform.  The team plans to analyze “coverage, signal, strength and mobility across network cells and how they function in flight.”  The companies hope to enable drone flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight.  This technology could be used for package delivery, remote inspection, and search and rescue.  The trials will be conducted at Qualcomm’s San Diego campus, located in Class B airspace, and at an FAA-authorized UAS test site.    

Verizon Wireless recently unveiled its Airborne LTE Operations initiative.  The company has been conducting technical trials using manned and unmanned aircraft to demonstrate how its LTE network could support drone flights.  Verizon noted its 4G LTE and drones platform could be used for inspection of pipelines and high voltage lines, aerial imaging for agriculture, and surveying of post-disaster sites by first responders.  In addition, the Wall Street Journal reports that Verizon will begin offering “drone data plans” starting at $25 a month that will allow drones to use LTE during flight to stream images and data back to earth.

These developments represent an exciting step forward to enable new and innovative uses of drones.


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