AT&T Labs working to combine drone video footage with artificial intelligence monitoring

The research unit at AT&T is working to combine two of what are perhaps the hottest buzzwords in the tech industry: drones and artificial intelligence.

Specifically, AT&T Labs is researching ways to take video footage from a drone flying around an AT&T cell tower and use AI to analyze that footage for signs of rust, corrosion or other defects on the tower. The result would save AT&T the time and money it takes to have engineers physically climb cell towers to do inspections (thanks to the drone), as well as the time and money it takes to have engineers review video from a drone inspecting a tower (thanks to the artificial intelligence).

“We are leveraging over 130 AT&T patents and 20 years of video analytics and machine research,” explained Art Pregler, the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) program director at AT&T. “We are using algorithms … the algorithm can learn what it is that it’s looking at and take appropriate actions.”

Pregler said that AT&T’s Labs team used 6,000 videos and more than 1 million cell tower photos to create its tower-inspection algorithm. “We’re teaching it to identify over 200 types of elements on a cell tower,” he said of the system. “It’s able to identify equipment. … The next step that we’re currently working on is to train the algorithm to identify defects.”

And, if the system identifies errors, then “the drone can dispatch a crew or whatever action is needed” to the tower.

Pregler explained that AT&T Labs’ work into AI and drones is in its very early stages, butif it is commercializedcould eventually result in some significant cost savings.

Pregler likely will provide additional details on AT&T's drone efforts at the upcoming Xponential show, May 8-11 in Dallas.

RELATED: AT&T: Drone tower inspections increase safety, could eventually save money

To be clear, tower inspection isn’t the only project on Pregler’s plate at AT&T. He said the carrier is currently working on a prototype “helicopter drone.”

“We are continuing to evolve our flying COW [cell on wings] initiative,” Pregler said.

Pregler’s drone team has been looking at ways to use drones to provide cell coverage in areas where the carrier doesn’t currently offer service, or where it needs to provide extra coverage. AT&T currently deploys COWs (cell sites on wheels) or COLTs (cell towers on light trucks) into such situations. COWs and COLTs typically use vans or large trucks to erect a temporary tower between 15 and 55 feet tall. The vehicles then backhaul the resulting cell traffic through a satellite, microwave or Ethernet link.

However, in places that COWs or COLTs can’t access, Pregler’s team at AT&T is researching whether drones might work. And in Pregler’s latest batch of tests, the carrier moved beyond the typical briefcase-sized, quad-rotor drone to test a system that looks more like a mini-helicopter. Pregler said AT&T’s helicopter drone sports a main rotor with three, two-foot-long blades that can lift 35 pounds (far more than the 10 pounds that can be lifted by a standard drone). Pregler said the helicopter drone can rise to 400 feet and can carry three radios, each of which can provide service to 4,000 people (though he noted the system currently only supports 8,000 people due to FCC regulations).

AT&T’s helicopter drone also carries a long tether cable that connects it to a box on the ground. The box supplies the drone with power and a fiber connection, and cell traffic collected by the drone can be backhauled through the ground box’s satellite, microwave or Ethernet connection. “We’re thinking these platforms can support first responders, disaster recovery,” Pregler said of the helicopter drone. “Because it’s higher than the ground towers, it can reach further.”

A possible use of AT&T’s helicopter drone would be to provide communications along the battle line of a wildfire, because such locations are often inaccessible by vehicle and may move around.

Pregler said AT&T plans to continue testing its helicopter drone and other drone applications.

Article updated May 2 to correct information about AT&T's helicopter drone.