AT&T’s Drone Program Launches an Industry First with 5G Transmission

In a quiet, non-descript field in rural Missouri, usually the only things fluttering through the tall grass are butterflies and birds. But on a recent April day, a Flying COW® joined the horizon, ushering in an industry first for AT&T by transmitting its 5G network from a drone.

The AT&T drone team picked this remote location for the ground-breaking launch of its Flying COW® (Cell on Wings), because of that: it’s remote. No trees. No houses. No humans. Only wide-open spaces and the occasional four-legged cow.

“We had intermittent, weak LTE signal at the flight location before we launched the 5G Flying COW®,” said Ethan Hunt, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Principal Program Manager, AT&T. “We flew the drone up to about 300 feet, turned on the signal and it began transmitting strong 5G coverage to approximately 10 square miles.”

That means, customers with a capable 5G phone in the area could have gone from no service to super-fast wireless connections in seconds. In the future, this could help first responders in a search and rescue mission.

“Drones may use 5G for command and control or to stream video, but the AT&T 5G Flying COW® is the only drone that provides a 5G network,” Ethan said.

A better experience takes off

A COW serves as a cell site on a drone, and AT&T has been using this technology to beam LTE coverage to customers during big events and disasters for years. Other companies may use 5G signals to communicate with drones, but the 5G Flying COW® could be a game changer.

“Our focus within the drone world is connectivity. All of our drone solutions have that focus,” said Art Pregler, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Director, AT&T. “5G brings a lot of new capability to the table. We can connect a lot larger number of devices with 5G. When we put that up, we can share with a larger population.”

That, in turn, can lead to a more seamless experience, better network performance and an overall better experience.

 “It’s enabling a lot more solutions, including human-to-machine interface that are now capable that wasn’t previously possible,” said Art.

On the horizon

5G is here and while many customers enjoy the speeds on their phones and tablets, there’s so many more opportunities on the horizon. For AT&T, 5G isn’t just about speed – it’s about being transformational.

“We are currently working through many exciting technical challenges to expand the capabilities of our Flying COWs®,” said Art. “We’re working to autonomously fly without tethers for months without landing, using solar power to provide secure, reliable, and fast 5G connectivity to large numbers of users over wide geographic areas.  This solution may one day help bring broadband connectivity to rural and other underserved communities across the U.S. and elsewhere.”

This launch is just one of several ground-breaking AT&T drone projects in the works right now.

  • Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight operations, GEOCAST air operations
    • The Drone team is testing BVLOS – which would allow the pilot to operate a drone from a completely different location. We currently have an AT&T-patented flight control system that allows our operators and our tethered Flying COWs® to be separated by thousands of miles.  In this sense, we can already operate our tethered Flying COWs® BVLOS.  We are also working on a next phase to launch untethered Flying COWs® from the operator’s location to fly many miles away to provide 5G connectivity at BVLOS locations.
  • RoboDogs
    • We are building a litter of “RoboDogs” that can be used for a number of situations, from search and rescue to bomb disablement. Our teams are constantly working to improve connectivity for these devices, including outfitting them with 5G technology.

Do you want to take to the sky?

AT&T’s drone program stands alone in the telecom industry. As the only one of its kind, program leaders are constantly training pilots – both new and veterans.

AT&T’s drone pilots are highly trained, and always ready to go. Led by a former FAA-trained air traffic controller, former U.S. Air Force air safety officer, and former NASA mission control specialist, the program currently has 30 drone pilots.

In addition to the unmanned training, the pilots have to attend ground school, online training, hands-on day and night field training, ongoing flight simulation training, and ongoing currency training.

This is a multi-month, multi-tier series of courses which cover 17 different topics ranging from Robotic Aircraft to Professionalism to Safety and Payloads.

Click here to learn more about joining the AT&T team.

By Press