AT&T, Intel to Test Drones Operated Over LTE Networks

Officials with the companies hope to show that the same LTE networks that connect smartphones will enable UAVs to fly higher and farther. 


Intel and AT&T want to see how drones will run over LTE networks.

The two companies will be at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016 show this week in Barcelona, Spain, demonstrating a drone operating beyond line-of-sight and streaming video over the same LTE network from AT&T that connects smartphones and tablets.

Most drones are limited in how far they can travel because operators need to keep them in sight to control them. However, Intel, AT&T and other tech industry vendors believe drones have a broad array of both industrial and consumer uses that require them to cover longer distances out of sight of the operators.

"Intel believes UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] have great potential, from inspections, precision agriculture to deliveries of consumer goods and providing emergency disaster relief," Anil Nanduri, vice president of Intel's New Technology Group and general manager of new markets within the chip maker's Perceptual Computing Group, said in a statement. "We want to grow this market through our collaborations and by integrating new technologies and compute to UAVs."

Drones are rapidly growing in popularity. Analysts with ABI Research last month said that 90 million consumer drones will ship in 2025, up from 4.9 million in 2014, with consumer drone revenues hitting $4.6 billion by 2025. In addition, the complexity of the drones will increase, including the growing use of cameras. From 2019 on, drones with at least one camera will outship those without any cameras, and these cameras will grow beyond just taking photos and videos to include such machine-vision applications as motion tracking and obstacle avoidance.

"The future challenge will lie in finding ways to keep the products interesting," ABI Research Director Phil Solis said in a statement. "By transforming consumer UAVs into flying smartphone-like platforms, product vendors will be able to add innovative technological functionality into the devices with an eye on more open application development to enable innovative use cases."

At MWC, Intel will run a Typhoon H UAV from Chinese drone maker Yuneec that will be armed with Intel's RealSense Technology UAV. The device will stream video and telematics via AT&T's LTE network. AT&T's Internet of things (IoT) team and Foundry innovation center will be working with Intel to evaluate how the LTE network performs at higher altitudes and how it impacts everything from video streaming to transmitting telematics to sending flight information.

"Our LTE network is uniquely positioned to connect industries like delivery, agriculture, construction and insurance," Chris Penrose, senior vice president of IoT solutions at AT&T, said in a statement. 'We're using the network to transfer important information, images and video quickly and efficiently—far beyond the boundaries of short range connectivity."

Officials with the two companies said that being able to connect drones over an LTE network could help address safety and security issues, as well as challenges around real-time communications and interference with aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration currently is working to put regulations and policies in place for drone operations.

Intel officials are looking at drones—and the larger IoT space—as an important growth market for its processors and other products, such as the RealSense 3D camera technology. The company announced last year a $60 million investment in Yuneec, with CEO Brian Krzanich at the time saying that "at Intel, we believe in a smart and connected world, and one of the best ways to bring that smart and connected world to everyone and everywhere has been drones."

In January, the company bought drone software maker Ascending Technologies, and at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) made drones a centerpiece of its message.

Intel isn't the only chip maker taking a hard run at the UAV market. Qualcomm in September introduced Snapdragon Flight, a small board that brings together all the mobile functionality needed by drones, including processors, navigation technology, cameras and various sensors.