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Qualcomm and AT&T today announced plans to start testing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, also known as drones) on cellular networks later this month. The goal is to analyze how drones can operate safely and more securely on commercial 4G LTE and future networks, like 5G.

Trials will take place at Qualcomm’s UAS Flight Center in San Diego, with conditions mimicking commercial, residential, and uninhabited areas. The facility can help test the use of commercial cellular networks for drones without affecting AT&T’s daily network operations.

Just under a year ago, Qualcomm unveiled its Snapdragon Flight drone development platform. In short, it’s the company’s attempt to own the de facto SoC (system on a chip) for drones, like it already does for high-end Android phones. When it was announced, the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight featured a Snapdragon 801 with a quad-core 2.26GHz processor, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GNSS support, real-time flight control, and 4K video. Some commercially available drones are already using the platform today.

“Many of the anticipated benefits of drones, including delivery, inspections and search and rescue will require a highly secure and reliable connection,” Chris Penrose, AT&T senior vice president of IoT Solutions, said in a statement. “With a focus on both regulatory and commercial needs, LTE connectivity has the potential to deliver optimal flight plans, transmit flight clearances, track drone location and adjust flight routes in near real-time. Solving for the connectivity challenges of complex flight operations is an essential first step to enabling how drones will work in the future.”

The team will examine coverage, signal, strength, and mobility across network cells as drones fly. Drones right now are only useful as they remain in view of the operator’s visual range. One way to break that limit is to rely on carriers, opening up the door for drones performing deliveries, remote inspections, and exploration.


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