AT&T Dispatches Drones to Monitor Network, Impress Customers

  • No. 2 U.S. carrier is testing eight uses for unmanned craft
  • Intel signed on to help monitor network connections in flight

AT&T Inc. is so eager to get customers to use drones -- connected to its wireless network, of course -- that the telecommunications carrier is testing out the unmanned aircraft for its own operations.

AT&T is working on eight cases for drone use inside the company, including sending the devices to do spot checks of cellular towers, inspect construction sites, or help handle initial assessments of technical troubles in the field, Chief Strategy Officer John Donovansaid.

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“We’d rather send a drone out that has an antenna that collects signals to troubleshoot before we dispatch a person,” Donovan said in an interview Monday at Mobile World Congress, a wireless industry gathering in Barcelona. “Once we do, we will learn a lot about it and help our enterprise customers learn what are the business cases for drones.”

Drones are gaining popularity as costs fall and the devices become more versatile, fueling a market that will reach $16 billion worldwide by 2021, according to WinterGreen Research. Consumers have flocked to them, and business applications are taking off. For example, Yamaha Corp. is testing drones for crop dusting in California’s Napa wine region, and Delhi-based photography company Think Tonk is charging $592 for wedding videos shot from a drone.

AT&T, the second-largest U.S. wireless network operator, wants in on the aerial action and has enlisted Intel Corp. to help test how drones work when connected to a network. Many drones today are controlled over shorter-range radio signals, meaning they can’t be controlled far away or when there’s interference, such as a tall building.

In a demonstration at the trade show, outside AT&T’s stand in the courtyard where conference-goers usually feast on Iberian ham sandwiches and tapas, Intel and AT&T were showing off a black Yuneec Typhoon H drone for several onlookers who took out their cellphones to snap pictures and shoot video. The drone, equipped with an Intel modem and an AT&T SIM card, streamed live video to monitors in the courtyard via an AT&T LTE network.

“So far you had to maintain line-of-sight operating these drones,” said Trent Nate, who moderated the drone demo for Intel. “This blows the doors off that whole limitation.”

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