AT&T Now Testing Drones As Flying LTE Antennae

Image courtesy of AT&T (though they did not approve the "Endor" text).

When wireless companies prepare to handle huge events — like the upcoming political conventions and the recent papal visit to Philadelphia — they roll out mobile cell towers and sometimes make permanent infrastructure upgrades to deal with the increased data use. Now AT&T is testing out whether it can use aerial drones to bolster LTE service in these situations.

According to a blog post by AT&T Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan (as opposed to AT&T’s Chief Stratego Officer, who is currently Jill from Accounts Receivable), the company will be launching the trial phase of its LTE-by-drone program later this week at its SHAPE expo in San Francisco.

“Connecting drones to our nationwide LTE network lets us capture data and feed it directly to our systems,” writes Donovan. “In turn, this can allow us to make changes to our network in real time.”

If drone-based LTE proves feasible, AT&T and others could use the aerial devices to provide temporary service in areas where mobile cell towers — Cell on Wheels, or COWs — can’t readily be deployed. So when a wireless company needs to restore service after a natural disaster, the drones would be able to get into the air before bulky COWs could be trucked to the site. In that sense, Donovan notes that the drone would be a Flying COW (Cell on Wings).

Donovan also notes that AT&T is working on ways to use LTE to transmit large amounts of data to and from drones. That would make the flying robots (which, worth pointing out, may ultimately bring about the end of humankind, only to use us as organic batteries… or something) more useful for commercial purposes.

AT&T is already using drones to monitor and inspect cell sites remotely, in some cases giving the company access to areas that can’t be reached safely or easily. The hope is that, by getting some eyes on cell towers right away, connection issues can be resolved faster than they have been.

While it goes unmentioned in the blog post, there exists the possibility that drones may be important to the ultimate deployment of 5G wireless networks. If, as expected, 5G ends up using extremely high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum, one of the potential problems is that these waves don’t like physical obstacles between the tower and the receiver. Having airborne antennae could alleviate some line-of-site concerns, though we’re still years away from widespread 5G deployment. By then, SkyNet will have been activated and we’ll be doing the drone’s bidding anyway…