More Drones, More Coverage
More Drones, More Coverage
Commercial grade drones are proving to be more than a novelty, and the industry is quickly evolving with multiple applications for convenience and safety. With sales expected to surpass $12 billion in 2021, these autonomous devices have proved useful in a variety of industries, including security, military, construction, utility, insurance, and others.
One particular application has proven particularly significant in contributing to public safety, made possible by high-definition cameras and enterprise small cells. A small cell is a low-power cellular station that uses broadband to connect to a service provider’s network. Operators are then able to use small cells attached to drones to provide spot coverage and extended service where access is limited or service has become unavailable.
The impact this has on public safety in the realm of emergencies or disasters is far-reaching. The technology can provide first responders and mobile customers with vital connectivity in the event of an emergency where service may otherwise be unavailable. Researchers are exploring the use of drones to fly portable cellular base stations into regions where cell service is down or completely unavailable.
In the aftermath of several recent hurricanes, both Verizon and AT&T have used drones to aid network recovery efforts. Last year, Verizon started using drones to inspect damaged cell sites that had been rendered inaccessible by flood water. This provides them with a remote perspective that allows them to formulate plans for the repair efforts without using human personnel for the inspection. After Hurricane Harvey hit, AT&T was ready with drones on standby to help accelerate large-scale network recovery efforts.
While mini, autonomous flying cell towers are the future of wireless communication in remote areas, there are a few main challenges that stand in the way of widespread adoption: drone life and network coverage. However, the flight time of a drone prior to recharging is improving quickly. A certain drone developed by CyPhy Works can climb 400 feet and stay airborne for up to a full week; however, this specific model is tethered to the ground, and therefore has a limited range.
Verizon is pushing the limits of flight time for untethered drones, and has tested models that can fly up to 16 hours before needing a recharge. The provider hopes to couple these long-duration flight times with mobile operations centers on the ground to give first responders on-site access to regular smartphone data sessions.
In the United States, current legislation requires drones to fly within a visual line of site of the operator, limiting the flight range to about 1,000-2,000 feet on average, depending on the size of the drone. The FAA has developed special regulations for drones during emergencies to track flights plans and prevent collisions. However, certain industries are seeking changes that would allow drones to fly beyond the visual line of sight in a safe manner for appropriate applications.
AT&T and NASA are partnering together to research drone traffic management that would allow for the operation of drones in the national airspace. With improved regulations and the capability of small cell connectivity, drones may soon become more incorporated in a number of industries.