Qualcomm Technologies and AT&T are working together to make far-reaching drone operations reliable and safe up the standards of the federal government. Although recent changes have made it possible to get a drone pilot’s license, new regulations which took effect last month limit the range of drone operation to within visual line of sight. Control of drones over longer distances is considered to be a riskier prospect, with radio links and Wi-Fi controls limiting range to just a few thousand feet. The new rules limit the use of drones for delivery, search and rescue, and remote-inspections.

The next step to make drone technology useful for these functions is to prove to regulators that it can be done safely and reliably, and can share space with traditional aviation. To do so, AT&T is partnering with Qualcomm, whose head of engineering is Paul Guckian, who was an early developer of Wi-Fi for commercial airlines. He also played a role in determining whether passenger cellular devices interfere with the avionics of commercial aircraft. The plan for the two companies is to use current 4G LTE and upcoming 5G networks to make wide-reaching drone use more reliable. Quallcom intends to test consumer drones outfitted with AT&T’s LTE cellular modems, as well as a version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight drone development platform. The platform uses high-fidelity sensor processing, more precise localization, autonomous visual navigation, and 4K videography to improve the situational awareness of drone operators in flight.

Engineers will also work to sort out the logistics of drone operation in airspace controlled by the FAA’s air traffic system, and of transitioning to such airspace from uncontrolled airspace. Qualcomm will provide camera and sensor technology so that drones will be able to avoid other aircraft. Drones will also need to be able to receive and respond to air traffic controllers when asked to change their flight path.

The plan is to provide drones, which will largely operate autonomously, with an option for human intervention, and a communication network that will allow drones to have as effective a safety net as traditional aviation.

The goal is to equip drones with a communication system that will assure regulators of the safety of flights beyond visual line of sight. Such a system would enable a wide range of new uses for drones, such as the delivery systems Amazon is striving for, as well as search and rescue, mapping, and exploration functions.

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