Qualcomm and AT&T Partner to Use Wireless Network for Drone Flights

After signaling that it plans to operate drones via cellular technologies, San Diego-based Qualcomm says today it is working with AT&T to use commercial wireless networks for test flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.

Qualcomm said in April it had received FAA authorization to operate drones in restricted airspace around its San Diego headquarters, including the use of advanced wireless networks to prevent “lost link” situations with radio-controlled drones.

In today’s announcement, Qualcomm Technologies and AT&T say they intend to operate drones on commercial 4G LTE networks. The trials are intended to evaluate how well drones fly across wireless network cells, and to assess coverage, signal strength, and related flight-control issues.

Qualcomm is hardly flying solo into this realm. Just last week, Raleigh, NC-based PrecisionHawk said it had received the first FAA waiver to make commercial flights with small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles that weigh under 55 pounds and fly under 100 mph) beyond the operator’s line of sight. PrecisionHawk, founded in 2010, provides aerial surveillance and analytical services, using drones that include a UAV airplane with a 5-foot wingspan.

PrecisionHawk has operated drones under a FAA Cooperative Research and Development Agreement since last year, and sees business opportunities for beyond-line-of-sight flights in aerial mapping of large agribusiness fields, forests, mining operations, public utilities, and other rural operations. In April, the company raised $18 million in a Series C round from Verizon Ventures, insurance giant USAA, NTT Docomo Ventres, and Yamaha Motor Ventures. Previous PrecisionHawk investors include Intel Capital, Millennium Technology Value Partners, and the Innovate Indiana Fund.

Qualcomm Technologies, a Qualcomm subsidiary, says it intends to use its Snapdragon Flight system in the test flights, which are set to begin later this month at Qualcomm’s San Diego campus.

In the statement, Qualcomm CTO Matt Grob says, “Not only do we aim to analyze wide-scalable LTE optimization for safe, legal commercial SUAS use cases with beyond line-of-sight connectivity, but the results can help inform positive developments in drone regulations and 5G specifications as they pertain to wide-scale deployment of numerous drone use cases.”

Qualcomm demonstrated drone flight tests earlier this year.

Qualcomm demonstrated drone flight tests at its headquarters earlier this year.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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