On Monday, a VA-based tech firm, Fenix Group, Inc., partnered with Martin UAV, a company that produces “rugged utility drones,” to produce an under-55-lb unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of offering 4G cell service–an accomplishment it calls the “world’s first.”

“The company sees huge potential for government and industry,” said Dave Peterson, Fenix Group’s president and CEO, in a press release.

According to the release, the development could mean a big savings for US Department of Defense (DoD) networks. Additionally, “the marriage of unmanned systems with LTE core networks is representative of what Google was trying to do with their Loon program,” said Peterson in the press release. “We beat Google at something, for very little money, and that feels great.” For a refresher, Project Loon developed flying air balloons that stayed afloat in Peru’s airspace for a total of 98 days, beaming Wi-Fi internet to the public. Facebook also developed a drone called Aquila to deliver internet to remote areas, which completed its first test flight in July 2016.

The “flying cell phone tower” would include a subscriber database and option for billing, which could allow for connectivity in rural areas. The drone’s camera system could also stream encrypted video to anyone on the network, according to the release.

“In the future, soldiers, search and rescue teams, and first responders will have access to drone video from their phones,” the release stated. “The Fenix team even went so far as to enable Internet access so that command centers could access the feed from anywhere in the world.” As a result, this could impact 4.2 billion people across the globe who do not have internet access, according to a 2015 report released by the United Nations’ Broadband Commission, 1.6 billion of whom live in remote locations that have limited ways of connecting to Wi-Fi.

According to the release, the drone was able to overcome many technical obstacles on a “shoestring budget.” “Power constraints, FAA and FCC authorities, getting the overall payload weight down, and a myriad of problems we didn’t expect all had to be overcome,” said Stefan Schaner, Fenix Group’s chief innovation officer, in the release.

The drone will first be used for the DoD and first responders, the release stated. After that, Fenix expects that telecom providers, oil and gas companies, and crisis response units will be next in line for the product.

SEE: Drone policy template (Tech Pro Research)

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

1. A partnership between a tech company and drone manufacturer has resulted in an under-55-lb UAV capable of offering 4G cell service

2. The “flying cell tower” would include a subscriber database and option for billing, which could allow for connectivity in rural areas. A camera system would also stream encrypted video to anyone on the network.

3. The development could help slash the budget for the US Department of Defense and could bring internet connectivity to remote areas, helping more than 4 billion people who don’t currently have access.

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