By Mike Freeman, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Qualcomm is teaming up with AT&T to test the operation of drones on cellular networks, which eventually could pave the way for unmanned aircraft package deliveries, remote inspection and public safety missions that require beyond line-of-sight navigation.
The two companies said this week that they will launch a trial program to analyze how well drones perform on today’s 4G LTE networks, as well as on experimental technologies that will power upcoming 5G networks.
Qualcomm is betting that the drone industry will emerge as a substantial market for the company’s cellular communications chips and mobile processors that power many of today’s smartphones.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires that drone operators be able to see their unmanned aircraft has they hover around. Radios used to control non-military drones are typically short-range, line-of-sight technologies.
Operating drones on cellular networks would open the door for remote navigation and far-flung flying. Qualcomm and AT&T hope to prove that the coverage, signal strength, reliability and security of cellular make it a good technology to operate drones safely from miles away.
"Many of the anticipated benefits of drones, including delivery, inspections and search and rescue will require a highly secure and reliable connection," said Chris Penrose, a senior vice president of AT&T. "Solving for the connectivity challenges of complex flight operations is an essential first step to enabling how drones will work in the future."
High-speed cellular networks also can transmit flight plans and clearances, track a drone’s location and adjust flight routes based on nearly air traffic, according to Qualcomm and AT&T.
Such precision may help regulators become comfortable that drones can be operated safely when they are beyond the sight of their controllers, said Matt Grob, Qualcomm’s chief technology officer.
"Not only do we aim to analyze LTE optimization for safe, legal commercial drone use with beyond line-of-sight connectivity, but the results (also) can help inform positive developments in drone regulations and 5G specifications," Grob said.
Testing will begin later this month at Qualcomm’s FAA-authorized unmanned vehicle flight center on the company’s Sorrento Mesa campus.
The center has "real world" conditions including federally controlled airspace near Marine Corp Air Station Miramar. Military aircraft routinely fly over the company’s campus.
Qualcomm doesn’t have a special permit for non-line-of-sight drone operation at this time. But it does have regulatory approval to fly low-altitude loops of about 1.5 miles around its headquarters building — as long as operators can see the drone and have received clearance from air traffic control at Miramar.
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