To Make Drone Deliveries Work, AT&T Is Tapping Into the Cell Network
Sure, the feds finally made it reasonably easy to get a drone pilot’s certificate, but it’s clear they still see unmanned aviation as a dodgy proposition. Among the many questions that come with any new tech is a basic limitation: The radio links and Wi-Fi that control the aircraft limit range to a few thousand feet, and aren’t robust enough for reliable drone control over long distances.
So the new rules, which took effect last month, limit drone use to visual line-of-sight operation, hamstringing operators interested in delivery, search-and-rescue, and remote-inspection operations.
The solution may lurk in your own line-of-sight—on top of water towers and rooftops, or shrouded by poorly faked roadside “trees.” Qualcomm Technologies and AT&T announced today they’re collaborating to make wide-ranging drone operations reliable and safe, using current 4G LTE and future 5G networks.
The drones will connect to the towers via modems similar to those found in smartphones and automobiles equipped with their own cellular broadband capability, and they’ll be controllable from any distance, as long as the drone is within cell range. (Though that’s not always necessary, since then can fly autonomously though dead zones.)
The goal is to sever the drone’s short leash, so the operator can intervene in a mission or control it continuously. In typical autonomous operation, that’s not always possible.
“There are a lot of great, innovative ideas for drone use out there, but we first need new technology that proves that the devices can fly safely over populated areas and in the national airspace,” says Paul Guckian, Qualcomm’s head of engineering. A specialist in electromagnetic compatibility, Guckian was an initial developer of Wi-Fi systems in commercial airliners and served a key role in evaluating whether passenger cell phones interfere with aircraft avionics.
Guckian’s savvy will be key, since engaging in pretty much any technological activity via airborne signal transmission demands government licensing, safety protocols to ensure your tech doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s, and validation that what your project won’t just work, it will over enough value to merit adapting the system to accommodate it.
That’s why Qualcomm and AT&T are beginning a long-term test and data-acquisition program at Qualcomm’s main R&D campus in San Diego. In April, the mobile tech company landed FAA authorization for drone operations on the campus, which is in Class-B airspace—the most restricted category, which can include major airports and military bases.
Qualcomm engineers will test consumer drones equipped with AT&T’s LTE cellular modems and a variation of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight drone development platform. That system uses high-fidelity sensor processing, precise localization, autonomous visual navigation, and 4K videography to boost the operator’s situational awareness in flight.
“Our goal is to evaluate how well drone communication persists in different conditions,” says Matt Walsh, director of business development for unmanned systems in AT&T’s IoT solutions group. “We need to baseline the performance as the drone progresses from ground level to 400 feet—the maximum height for drone flight allowed by law—and also during transitions to new cell networks as it’s flying.”
The companies make a logical duo. Qualcomm has been active in robotics. AT&T, which works with 19 top automakers, knows its way around cellular Wi-Fi systems in moving vehicles. Beyond evaluating signal strength, consistency and security, their engineers will determine how to operate within controlled airspace—areas run by the FAA’s air traffic control system—and in transitions between controlled and uncontrolled airspace. These drones need to detect and avoid other aircraft, (using Qualcomm’s camera and sensor tech), and to receive and follow commands from air traffic controllers to change direction, altitude, or their entire flight path.
In most future scenarios, the drones will be autonomous but need a human-intervention option, with continuous data streams being sent back for in-flight monitoring. With a strong communication network in place, drone operators would have a safety blanket as robust as the one that protects traditional aviation, Guckian says.
With no firm timeline in mind, Qualcomm and AT&T want to produce the kind of drone communication system that will convince federal regulators to allow flights beyond the visual line-of-sight. That would enable more than the flying delivery systems Amazon and Google dream of. It would permit search-and-rescue missions, mapping, exploration, and environmental monitoring far beyond what any human pilot can see.
Next step: Getting drone makers to boost their range—right now just 20-60 minutes—so they can keep up with progress.
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