AT&T, Intel Showcase Drone Technologies in Separate Demonstrations

AT&T officials show how the carrier is using drones to inspect network towers, while Intel and Airbus highlight drones inspecting passenger aircraft.

Intel Airbus

One of the most common ways that enterprises will be able to use drones will be to inspect and analyze remote or hard-to-reach structures or systems. AT&T and Intel, in separate demonstrations, put such capabilities on display.

At the carrier's Shape Conference in San Francisco, AT&T officials are showing how the company is using drones to perform aerial inspections of cell towers, which will lead to improved service to customers by enabling AT&T to more quickly make changes to the network, according to John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of technology and operations.

For its part, Intel is partnering with Airbus to enable the airplane-maker to use drones that include the chip maker's RealSense 3D camera technology on final inspections of planes, a move that Airbus officials said will significantly reduce the amount of time needed for inspections.

Both instances illustrate a use case for drones that will likely become more common now that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month finalized regulations for commercial drones that let businesses use devices up to 55 pounds for everything from aerial photography to agricultural work to construction surveying and gas line inspections.

Nokia last year partnered with Middle Eastern telecommunications company Du in a proof-of-concept (PoC) demonstrating that drones armed with smartphones can be used to test the performance of the networks, run network optimization actions, inspect towers, and test radio planning and line-of-sight between radio towers.

In a post on the AT&T blog, Donovan wrote that the experience gained using the drones to inspect the network towers could be applied to other projects using the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to improve company operations and customer experiences. That includes using them to enhance LTE wireless coverage by hovering over such events as concerts and disasters. Using the drones for the towers will make inspections faster and safer, he wrote.

"Connecting drones to our nationwide LTE network lets us capture data and feed it directly to our systems," Donovan wrote. "In turn, this can allow us to make changes to our network in real time. By using drones to inspect a cell site, we're able to conduct inspections more quickly and safely—and even access parts of a tower that a human simply could not. We anticipate this will allow us to improve our customers' experience by enhancing our cell sites faster than ever before."

AT&T dubbed drones used to provide LTE coverage at large events as Flying COWs (Cell on Wings), he wrote. Another idea for drones is being developed by the carrier's Internet of things (IoT) team, which is looking at having UAVs use AT&T's LTE network to send large amounts of data in real time that can help in such areas as insurance, farming, facility and asset inspections, and delivery service.

Intel's work with Airbus is the beginning of a program that the airliner company plans to expand into next year. The companies modified a Falcon 8 drone from AscTec with Intel's RealSense technology that can be used by UAVs to avoid collisions. The drone was operated by a human pilot and followed a predetermined flight path taking a series of pictures. The images then were compiled in a 3D digital model, put in a database and analyzed.

Airbus can use the drone to find everything from paint defects, scrapes, dents and other anomalies, which can then be documented and repaired. As many as 150 photos can be taken, according to Nathalie Ducombeau, head of quality at Airbus. Traditionally, Airbus inspectors would use telescopic handler vehicles to look at an airliner, which is a time-consuming task that comes with safety concerns for the inspectors.

"Now … we can perform inspections of the aircraft in 10 to 15 minutes, so it's a great improvement in terms of time," Ducombeau said in a video showcasing the proof-of-concept. "It's 10 minutes instead of two hours."

Airbus and Intel performed the demonstration at the Farnborough International Airshow in England.

Ducombeau said the company is testing the drone technology on its Airbus A330 airliners and that the company will begin using it regularly with some aircraft by the end of the year. The program will be broadened to cover other airliners in the company in 2017, she said.