AT&T wants to keep order in drone-filled skies

The carrier is eyeing a role in drone networking and even air traffic control

When it comes to drones, AT&T wants to be in the driver’s seat.

The massive U.S. carrier is already using drones to inspect its cell towers and may someday put cells on drones to boost service at big events. But it’s also eyeing a major role in the way others use drones.

At the heart of it all is AT&T’s network, technology executives from the company said Friday at AT&T’s Shape conference in San Francisco. They see the network as a future backbone for command and control of drones or even a drone traffic management system.

Air traffic control is one of the big challenges looming over the future of commercial and recreational drones. Several companies, including Google and PrecisionHawk, have proposed ways to keep order in the skies. It’s possible AT&T’s wireless coverage could form the foundation of a tracking system.

Naturally, AT&T also sees a chance to sell more data services for what are essentially flying computers. Customers in agriculture, real estate, package delivery, logistics and emergency services may have a need to stream large amounts of data from drones, said Art Pregler, the carrier’s drone program director. Real-time remote piloting via browsers is another potential use of the network.

The regulations governing all this are still taking shape, but Pregler, who sits on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s aviation rule-making committee, is optimistic.

“I see the rules continuing to change and continuing to work in our favor,” he said.

But even if regulations hold back AT&T’s ambitions for other companies’ drones, it’s fully committed to the technology.

“We’re still going to jump in and be one of the biggest users of drones in the United States,” said John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and president of technology and operations.

The company can already deploy drones nationwide for tasks like inspecting cell towers, he said. Even if battery life and range are limited, AT&T has the physical reach to roll out a big fleet. “We have garages all over the place,” Donovan said.

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