America carrier, AT&T, and chipset designer, Qualcomm, have formed a partnership in order to test drones with an eye for a number of future uses of the technology. These drones will be powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight platform and operated on AT&T's LTE network, but away from an in-service area. AT&T currently use short range drones for inspection duties but has plans for longer ranged UAS designed for product delivery, inspections, exploration and rescue duties. However, in order to progress unmanned flight technology, a large number of tests need to be conducted using a commercially available wireless network. A part of these tests will be ensuring that the drones are able to remain connected to the AT&T LTE network when they are operating under Beyond Visual Line of Sight, or BVLOS, conditions – in other words, that the unmanned vehicles can still be connected to when they cannot be seen as they are operating behind buildings, hills or other obstacles.
The tests, which are due to start later this month, will be conducted at Qualcomm's headquarters in San Diego. Here, Qualcomm has a drone Flight Center, approved by the FAA and far enough from AT&T's consumer networks. Here the engineers will put the drones through their paces by operating them under a number of different conditions and environments. These will simulate different areas such as commercial districts, residential areas, barren spaces plus FAA-controlled spaces. AT&T's engineers will be assessing how the current LTE network works under these conditions, as the UAS will be operating beyond the range of Wi-Fi networks. Qualcomm's executive vice president and chief technology officer, Matt Grob, explained that the partnership will be assessing "wide-scalable LTE optimization" at beyond visual ranges. The team will be using the data obtained for informed positive developments in drone regulations and to help build the 5G specifications related to drone use. AT&T's IoT Solutions division senior vice president, Chris Penrose, added that many of the proposed future uses for drones require a secure and reliable connection in order to "deliver optimal flight plans, transmit flight clearances, track drone location and adjust flight routes in near real-time." This is where a high performance LTE network should work well as it offers a relatively low latency, which is important for allowing the operator to quickly respond to information and feedback from the drone.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon Flight platform is an off-the-shelf kit based around the venerable 32-bit Snapdragon 801 chipset, which is already being used by a number of drones available for sale. The Snapdragon Flight unit offers "superior control and navigation" functionality for UAS and supports autonomous visual navigation and 4K photography in the one lightweight module. The Snapdragon Flight platform is part of Qualcomm's robotics product portfolio, which in itself is part of Qualcomm's diversification away from smartphone and tablet chipsets. Matt Grob is also due to deliver a keynote presentation later this week on LTE drones at the CTIA Super Mobility 2016 conference, which may provide us with additional details