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Will future growth in non-military drone use come mostly from hobbyists and event planners? This is not likely. Wireless companies are already finding ways to leverage the capabilities of these small aircraft.

AT&T and T-Mobile are using drones to perform aerial inspections of their cell towers. By using drones, these companies are able to conduct inspections in a more safe manner. They can also access parts of a tower that a human cannot reach. AT&T believes this will improve its customers’ experience by enhancing cell sites faster.

According to AT&T, future drone applications include flying COWs (Cell on Wings). Flying COWs could provide LTE coverage at large events (e.g., concerts or sports venues). They may even be able to provide coverage when a vehicle is unable to drive to a designated area.

In addition to AT&T using drones to enhance its network, its IoT team is developing solutions involving drones for its customers. More specifically, AT&T is researching how in-flight drones can use its LTE network to send large amounts of data in real time. This capability may benefit areas such as insurance, farming, facility, and asset inspections.

Not to be outdone, Verizon is testing drones for use in disaster response. At the end of January, Verizon participated in a 14-mile, drone flight at the Mississippi National Guard’s Camp Shelby. Verizon set up a cloud communications network so that everyone on the ground could observe the drone mission as it was happening and send messages to each other. For example, they could provide a warning via a mobile device if the drone was veering off course. According to Verizon’s chief innovation architect, Jeff Schweitzer, this sort of communications network would have been useful after Hurricane Katrina.

Besides disaster response, Verizon has been exploring drone use for agricultural purposes. It recently did a pilot project to monitor a grape crop at the Hahn Estate winery in Soledad, California.

Wireless companies are contributing to the growing use of drones. So, the drones you may see flying around may not be those of wedding videographers or teenage enthusiasts. They could be drones from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon that are providing ways to better serve customers or help the community.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: P1140970, Flickr)