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Drones Are About To Get A Lot More Useful With LTE

Right now, most drones we see are souped-up remote control helicopters, ranging from kids’ toys to high-powered hobbyist flyers. But, they could be a whole lot more. The biggest obstacle to maximizing drones’ potential is LTE connectivity, which is a little trickier than connecting devices on the ground. Intel and AT&T were at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week to talk about how they’re working to make it happen.

The partnership encompasses the two most important pieces of the LTE puzzle — AT&T provides the network, while Intel makes the chipsets that allow devices to connect to that network. Intel is now testing some of those chipsets in drones connected to AT&T’s network in order to work through the kinks of connecting flying machines to an LTE network. It’s not the same as connecting a phone — cell towers were designed to connect things on the ground, so connection stability isn’t a guarantee up in the air.

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That connection needs to be stable for the drones that are going to take advantage of this technology. While hobbyists will enjoy being able to stay in control and stream video even after the drone leaves their line of sight, the commercial potential is much more exciting. Right now, most drones are connected using a Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth, both of which are short range. In order to make things like drone delivery happen, drones need to have a persistent connection over long distances. If an LTE connection for a drone can be stable, video can be streamed from the drone over long distances to a central pilot, so they can check in on the drone to make sure nothing’s gone wrong. It also means the drone can fly all over a city or neighborhood dropping off packages with minimal human input.

It won’t be easy — after all, LTE connectivity on the ground isn’t that reliable sometimes, and with something like drone delivery, there’s virtually no room for error. But, if they can figure it out, it’ll do more than just let Amazon drone drop stuff on our doorsteps. It could change the way farmers manage and observe their crops, and we’d see something similar in the construction industry. More importantly, they could allow search and rescue efforts to find survivors much faster after a natural disaster.

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A network of drones has its dark side as well. Suspicion of spying on the part of the government, corporations, and fellow citizens will be rampant, and to some extent it’ll probably be warranted — if the technology’s there, it’s a guarantee someone, somewhere is going to use it in objectionable ways. In other words, you’ll be hearing about this story a lot in the near future.