AT&T’s LTE network to support out-of-sight flying in new federal drone tests

AT&T confirmed it is working with both the city of San Diego and the commonwealth of Virginia to support major tests of drone technology. Importantly, the carrier said its LTE network will be used to support “beyond visual line of sight” drone flying, meaning drone pilots will navigate their drones in real time via a connection to the device through AT&T’s LTE network rather than just watching the drones.

The two tests are part of an undertaking by the U.S. secretary of transportation to create a regulatory framework that can integrate drones into the nation’s airspace. USDOT said this week it selected 10 state, local and tribal governments—which include the city of San Diego and the commonwealth of Virginia—as participants in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program. The White House initiative partners the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with local, state and tribal governments, “which then partner with private sector participants to safely explore the further integration of drone operations,” according to a USDOT release.

“For these projects we’ll use our Flying Cell On Wings (COW) to provide LTE cellular coverage in coverage-denied environments, including after disasters and during emergency operations. Our LTE cellular network will also be used to provide reliable and secure communications in support of the safety case necessary for advanced drone operations, such as beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for package delivery and linear inspections,” AT&T said in a statement to FierceWireless. “In addition to helping advance the safe integration of drone operations nationwide, we plan to apply key learnings to FirstNet to give first responder subscribers even more innovative technologies that can help them stay safe and achieve their lifesaving missions.”

Further, the city of San Diego disclosed additional details about the drone tests it plans to run, as well as some of the partners—which include Qualcomm, Uber, Intel, GE, Airmap and others—that it will work with.

“San Diego’s local program will include projects like flying medical specimens from UC San Diego for expedited results and cost savings, testing food delivery from restaurants to consumers using Uber, enhancing public safety by deploying drones to incident scenes in advance of first responders and testing the integration and communication between driverless cars and unmanned aircraft systems,” the city said in a release.

The tests are a significant step in the U.S. government’s approach toward drone regulation. Amateur drone pilots must keep their drones at or below 400 feet and must be able to see the devices at all times, but the FAA is working to allow select companies to test non-line-of-sight technologies for drone piloting. For example, Praxis Aerospace Concepts International (PACI) recently obtained authorization from the FAA to conduct “non-line-of-sight” flying in Nevada, largely due to the company’s use of 700 MHz spectrum that won’t suffer from interference from other users. That means that PACI’s pilots will be able to install cameras on their drones and fly them by watching the real-time video (transmitted over PACI’s 700 MHz network) from the cameras.

Operators like AT&T, not surprisingly, are keen to create a new market of devices that can make use of their networks.

As Reuters noted, the USDOT’s 10 test programs will support a variety of drone applications. For example, Apple plans to use drones to improve the accuracy of its Apple Maps service, while a startup called Flirtey will fly medical equipment on drones to heart-attack victims in Nevada.

Interestingly, Reuters noted that Amazon—which has made clear its desire to build a nationwide fleet of drones to deliver packages for its customers—was not selected by the USDOT to test advanced drone services.