AT&T and Qualcomm could pave the way for drone delivery with tests on LTE networks

Qualcomm Technologies and AT&T will begin testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on 4G LTE networks. This could enable beyond visual line of sight operations and boost drone capabilities.

Image: Qualcomm

In a move to grow the scale of drone deployments and increase their potential use cases, Qualcomm Technologies and AT&T will soon begin testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on commercial 4G LTE networks, the two companies announced Tuesday.

According to a press release, the trials will take place in late September at Qualcomm Technologies' San Diego Campus, in an FAA-authorized UAS Flight Center. The center has features that mimic the conditions a drone could face while operating in the real world, though the tests will not affect AT&T's daily operations.

In addition to the 4G LTE studies, the tests will also examine the potential for 5G capabilities and other innovations that could impact drones.

One of the core reasons for testing drone capabilities on cell networks is potentially enabling what is known as beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. Currently, many drones are limited to staying in range of their operator to continue receiving signal from the controller.

However, if BVLOS was achieved, it could "enable successful delivery, remote inspection and exploration," the press release said. Other potential advantages for improved wireless connectivity listed by the press release were "ubiquitous coverage, high-speed mobile support, robust security, high reliability and quality of service (QoS)."

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Chris Penrose, senior vice president of IoT Solutions at AT&T, wrote in the release that improving drone operations on LTE networks could also help "deliver optimal flight plans, transmit flight clearances, track drone location and adjust flight routes in near real-time."

The Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight drone development platform will be used in the trials as well. It's an integrated board that uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and supports 4K video, along with autonomous visual navigation and localization capabilities.

"Not only do we aim to analyze wide-scalable LTE optimization for safe, legal commercial [small unmanned aircraft systems] SUAS use cases with beyond line-of-sight connectivity, but the results can help inform positive developments in drone regulations and 5G specifications as they pertain to wide-scale deployment of numerous drone use cases," Matt Grob, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Qualcomm Technologies, said in a press release.

It's no secret that the drone market is expanding rapidly. Multiple reports have attempted to predict its future growth, putting it between $2 billion and $5.59 billion, depending on the supporting organization. And, promises like drone delivery, drone W-Fi, and drone conference calls could bolster the market even more.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. 1. Qualcomm Technologies and AT&T will begin testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, on commercial 4G LTE networks later this month.
  2. 2. The trials could help pave the way for drone delivery, and controlling drones beyond the line of sight of the drone operator.
  3. 3. The drone market continues to grow, and improved connectivity options could help push it even further in terms of adoption and capabilities.

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