The telecommunications giant is phasing in a drone program in which it uses the devices to inspect cell towers for damage and to test the performance of its wireless network.
Drones aren’t likely to deliver Amazon.com packages from a warehouse to your doorstep anytime soon, but next month they might help keep your cellphone working.
AT&T in September is phasing in its first drone program, after months of trials. The telecommunications giant plans to use the lightweight, remote-control-operated flying machines to inspect cell towers for damage and test the performance of AT&T’s wireless network.
Drones are among the most hyped technology of the past several years.
Aided by increasingly lightweight sensors and computing devices, as well as more powerful batteries, they have attracted interest from industries ranging from agriculture to telecommunications and retail as a way to add new services or more efficiently run their businesses.
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Amazon made waves in late 2013, introducing a video concept of a drone delivery service. Since then, the Seattle tech giant and other companies have lobbied regulators to approve broader testing and deployment of drones.
New Federal Aviation Administration rules governing commercial use of vehicles took effect this week, mandating, among other things, that operators keep the vehicle within visual line of sight, fly only during the day and maintain a flying level below 400 feet above the ground.
The new rules, said Art Pregler, who leads AT&T’s drone team out of the company’s Redmond office, “make it much easier on us.”
AT&T’s aims were on display during a media demonstration Wednesday at Husky Stadium in Seattle.
AT&T, which is among the wireless companies that have worked to boost reception for the days when spectators in 70,000-seat stadiums all try to get on the internet at once, brought in a pair of drones to demonstrate testing signal quality and hardware inspection.
The demonstration also highlighted some of the drawbacks of the nascent technology.
A light but steady rain initially prevented the drones from operating outdoors, moving a demonstration to the covered stadium concourse. That grounded the larger drone, as interference from the concrete and steel enclosure broke its satellite link, meaning the desk-sized, six-rotor drone couldn’t hover automatically.
Pregler said his team plans to use drones to inspect cell towers — potentially reducing the need for dangerous climbs by technicians to see for themselves. They’ll also use the vehicles to check if protected birds have nested in cell sites, which means they must be left alone.
AT&T isn’t building or buying the drones. Instead, Pregler says, the company has relationships with five U.S. drone operators. Local AT&T units that need a drone can call on those companies as needed.
Down the line, Pregler says the company hopes to deploy drones as temporary cell sites to restore connectivity during emergencies or after natural disasters. Eventually, he says, the hope is that advances in drone artificial intelligence will allow for vehicles that can help guide themselves and automatically detect flaws in the wireless network or damage to a cell site.
“It’s been exciting; we’ve come a long way,” Pregler said. “The technology is evolving rapidly.”