AT&T is launching drones into the sky as mobile 5G hotspots

AT&T has announced it is working to introduce a drone-based 5G network, after successful tests of transmitting across a 10-mile radius.

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5G heads to the skies.

5G TRANSMITTING DRONES

Telecommunications giant AT&T has developed drones capable of beaming down 5G signal to an area with patchy connectivity, the company announced after recently running tests.

The new drone has been named the 5G Flying COW (an acronym for Cell on Wings). In testing, it was able to provide an area of some 10 square miles with strong 5G signal, AT&T says.

Ethan Hunt, principal program manager of the AT&T Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), explained in a press release that customers with capable 5G phones in the area could have “gone from no service to super-fast wireless connections in seconds”.

“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,” Hunt stated.

“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.”

One application is for use during wildfires or other emergency situations, and to ‘help bring broadband connectivity to rural and other underserved communities across the US and elsewhere’.

While AT&T emphasised the impact the test could have on first responders, the better communication features could also be useful for news organisations in rural areas when covering events where cell coverage is spotty. 

Press photos of the test in Missouri.
Photo: AT&T

“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,” Hunt added in the release.

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

Elon Musk’s Starlink is working on providing the entire world with satellite internet connectivity, but until that happens, flying drones beaming down super high-speed internet is “a welcome next step”.

Starlink was one company permitted to bid for 5G mmWave spectrum licenses in Australia.

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AIRPORTS ARE NEXT

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and major wireless companies have identified steps to safely deploy 5G around some airports, the agency recently announced.

The announcement signals a path forward after AT&T and Verizon delayed their rollouts earlier this year amid concerns about interference with devices measuring aircraft altitude.

As part of a phased approach, regional aircraft operators with radio altimeters most vulnerable to interference must retrofit them with radio frequency filters by the end of the year, the agency said in an announcement.

In the United States, 5G services launched in 46 markets on January 19, using frequencies in a radio spectrum called the C-band. These frequencies can be close to those used by radio altimeters, an important piece of safety equipment in aircraft.

To make sure that this does not lead to hazardous interference, the FAA requires that radio altimeters are accurate and reliable. 

Airlines and other aircraft operators with altimeters that are affected must add filters or other upgrades as soon as they can, the FAA said.

“We believe we have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist,” acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in the announcement.

“We appreciate the willingness of Verizon and AT&T to continue this important and productive collaboration with the aviation industry.”

The FAA worked with the companies to determine airports near which they can boost service with the smallest chance of disruption to scheduled flights.

5G is still on its way to reaching its full potential and the skies will change the industry.


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