AT&T is envisioning using drones outfitted with cellular LTE modules to monitor everything from the health of farmland to the damage sustained to a roof during a hailstorm. The company has a “drone team” within its Internet of Things (IoT) organization dedicated to developing industrial applications that use drones.
The company’s IoT organization believes that most drones will need some sort of cellular connectivity in order to be valuable. “We expect there will be some requirements for connectivity,” says Matt Walsh, director of business development for AT&T’s IoT organization.
Some industries are a natural fit for connected drones, like agriculture and insurance. Walsh says insurance companies could use drones outfitted with video cameras to inspect roofs for hail damage. Once the video and other data is gathered, it can then be transmitted to the agent so that they can act quickly on the data.
Likewise, farmers could use drones to inspect fields and collect data that allows them to better understand the health of the fields. Currently that type of data is being collected by airplanes, which is an expensive proposition.
AT&T is practicing what it preaches by using drones to conduct inspections of the company’s cell sites. The tower trial, which is expected to roll out commercially in September, uses drones outfitted with video cameras and connected to the LTE network to stream live video feeds of the site to the network operations manager.
“The traditional method of checking these sites is to have a tower climber,” says Art Pregler, director of unmanned aircraft with AT&T’s Drone Team. “Drones can do it much faster. And it’s definitely safer.”
Traffic Control for Drones
Beyond industrial applications, AT&T also is hoping to play some role in helping the government keep track of drones and other unmanned aircrafts that are becoming increasingly prevalent in the airspace.
In April, the FAA said it was working with NASA to come up with an Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management system. NASA currently is testing a system in multiple locations across the U.S. using about two dozen drones and then monitoring them at the agency’s Ames Research Center in California.
AT&T’s Pregler says that the company believes there will be a need for some underlying connectivity to track all the drones, and it will have to transmit data real-time so that flight paths can be altered in case of an emergency. “Without connectivity, it’s difficult to message that,” Pregler says.