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A drone hovers near an AT&T cellular tower for an inspection. (Credit: AT&T)

When you think of the up-and-coming players in the commercial drone market, you might think of Amazon, or Google … but how about AT&T?

“AT&T is going to be one of the biggest users of drones in the United States,” Art Pregler, who heads AT&T’s drone program and serves as director of national mobility systems, told GeekWire in an interview.

Art Pregler
Art Pregler is the head of AT&T’s unmanned aircraft systems program and director of national mobility systems. (Credit: AT&T)

That may sound like a bold statement – but Pregler is just reinforcing what John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and president of technology and operations, said last month at the company’s Shape conference in San Francisco.

Long before Amazon gets its drone delivery fleet in operation in the United States, AT&T will be deploying fleets of robo-fliers across the nation, thanks to regulatory changes that took effect this week.

Because of those changes, AT&T is now able to use unmanned aircraft systems to inspect cellular towers and check cellphone reception in urban areas – including the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, where the procedure is being demonstrated this week.

The drone inspection routine already has been tested in rural areas, where AT&T workers face less likelihood of coming in contact with the uninvolved public. Repair crews can send a drone flying up to the top of the tower and have it beam back live video to an operations center for review.

The idea is to give the crews a better idea what they’ll be dealing with before they climb up to make repairs. “The results have been very favorable,” said Pregler, who’s based in the Seattle area.

Cell tower inspections are just the start: Pregler expects the drones to come into play for the bird-nesting surveys that cellphone networks are required to conduct, and to assess the impact of floods and fires on cellular resources.

AT&T is currently working with five vendors across the country for its drone services, and expects to expand its operations in the months to come, Pregler said.

Looking ahead, the company is working on specialized drones called Flying COWs (“Cell on Wings”) to beef up cellular coverage at concerts, football games and other large events. Networked drones could also provide emergency communication capabilities, either LTE or Wi-Fi, in the event of a disaster.

“That’s potentially a year out,” Pregler said.

Meanwhile, AT&T Labs is looking into ways to add artificial intelligence to drones.

“The drone can use machine learning, to learn what it’s looking at and make decisions based on what it sees,” Pregler said.

At first, AI drones would merely issue trouble tickets to order up repairs by human repair crews. Several years from now, remote operators might be able to use tool-equipped drones to fix some problems without having to have someone climb a cell tower, Pregler said.

But wait … there’s more. AT&T not only wants drones for its own applications. It also wants to play a role in air traffic control for other companies’ drones. “We’re looking externally, into how to support command and control for a drone traffic management system,” Pregler said.

That will be particularly important once the Federal Aviation Administration gives the go-ahead for drones to fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. A drone traffic control system will almost certainly have to be in place by the time Amazon, Google and other companies start flying delivery drones far and wide.

So who are AT&T’s partners? Amazon? Google? Pregler won’t say, citing confidentiality requirements. But you can be sure that AT&T isn’t going it alone.

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