Verizon has joined the likes of Facebook, Google and fellow telecommunications giant AT&T in exploring the potential of internet-connected unmanned aircraft. While its vision involves expanding 4G coverage across the US, it has an immediate focus on shoring up communications for first responders in emergency situations, and recently carried out trials to that effect.
Verizon has dubbed the initiative Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) and says it has actually been in the pipeline for around two years. The company has been working to integrate internet connectivity into unmanned aerial vehicles and hook them up to its 4G network, daisy chaining coverage and beaming it down to unconnected areas in the process. This is similar to how Facebook hopes its Aquila drones will work.
Verizon recently teamed up with company American Aerospace Technologies to see how using drones as gliding cell towers could have an impact in disaster relief scenarios. In a simulated mission in New Jersey, the team set a drone with a 17-foot (5.2 m) wingspan in flight to put the onboard technologies through their paces.
"We are testing a 'flying cell site' placed inside the drone to determine how we can provide wireless service in a weather-related emergency from the air," Verizon's Howie Waterman tells New Atlas. "This is the first such wireless network test in an emergency response simulation, leveraging our 4G LTE network."
Verizon says this is just one of a series of successful technical trials it has conducted around the country, involving both unmanned and manned aircraft. It imagines connected aerial vehicles eventually being used to image crops, carry out inspections of pipelines and high-voltage power lines, and monitor the physical extent of threats like wildfires and tornadoes.
As it stands for businesses in the US, you can't legally fly drones where you can't see them, but regulators say laws that will accommodate these types of applications are in the works. When and if that happens, Verizon says it will have a certification process whereby it will approve other businesses' drones to hook up to its flying 4G network and get in on the action.