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AT&T: We wanna be a drone company, not just a phone company

Aerial inspectors, air traffic control and flying COWs ahead

By Iain Thomson, 16 Jul 2016

Vid AT&T is planning to rapidly expand its use of drones – it can already put one of the gizmos in the air virtually anywhere over continental United States.

Speaking at its Shape tech expo in San Francisco on Friday, Art Pregler, AT&T's drone program director, said the telco giant is using the flying gadgets to augment its 20,000 field staff and is making regular flights to check out cell towers for faults and nesting wildlife. It usually takes an engineer half an hour to scale a tower and check it out, but the drone can do the job in minutes.

"Our advantage is our network," he said. "We're investigating how to optimize our network to perform as a backbone for command and control for drones, so we intend to research how our network can be a foundation for a drone traffic management system and a drone data transmission system."

AT&T's cell tower inspection drones require two operators – a pilot to maneuver the device and a safety spotter to make sure it doesn't get into a tricky situation.

The biz also envisions a fleet of flying COW (cell on wings) drones with mini-phone-masts built in that could be deployed wherever extra coverage is needed. AT&T sees them being shipped into disaster zones to provide coverage when infrastructure is damaged, flying over crowded venues to provide more bandwidth for those below, or as a stopgap measure for remote locations.

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AT&T is also working with NASA, government regulators, and other companies to develop an air-traffic control system for drones. Pregler said he hoped the proposed system would use AT&T's network, but that nothing had been decided as yet.

Obviously, there are still some regulatory hurdles to be overcome before drones fill our skies, as El Reg has found out. But Pregler said that the US Federal Aviation Authority is moving on this, and America's patchwork of local laws could be getting some firm federal rules soon.

Looking further ahead, he said that drones could be used for making deliveries, as envisaged by Amazon and others. There are other use cases too, such as helping farmers, monitoring logistics performance, and surveying building sites.

Pregler said AT&T is using drones from various makers and wouldn't say which manufacturers are providing their kit. The telco is also experimenting with tethering drones to provide them with power for short-distance flights. ®

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