Qualcomm and AT&T Are Joining Forces on a New Drone Project

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

Qualcomm and AT&T are teaming on a big drone project.

The two companies said on Tuesday that Qualcomm (QCOM) Technologies (a Qualcomm subsidiary) will test how well drones can fly on AT&T’s (T) 4G cellular network.

If drones are going to take to the skies en masse, there needs to be a way for all those flying robots to link up to a network. Besides being able to keep track of drones so they don’t smash into buildings, a network connection could make it easier for the drones to transmit data, such as aerial photography, back to a company’s data centers or cloud computing services.

The drone tests will commence at Qualcomm’s San Diego campus later this month and will involve flying drones in simulated “real world” environments, like a residential neighborhood or uninhabited land, according to the announcement. Although one of the goals is to learn how robust are current cellular networks when supporting drones in flight, AT&T added that the testing facility was designed in a way to not impact current customers’ network connections.

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AT&T and Qualcomm said they are conducting the trials to learn how to improve technology so that drones can more efficiently fly beyond the line of sight of human drone operators.

Although current FAA rules do not permit companies to fly drones outside a person’s field of vision unless granted permission, many companies like Alphabet (GOOG) (Google’ parent) and Amazon (AMZN) view the ability to do so crucial for potential services, such as a large-scale drone delivery business.

“Many of the anticipated benefits of drones, including delivery, inspections and search and rescue will require a highly secure and reliable connection,” said Chris Penrose, AT&T’s senior vice president of Internet of Things solutions, in a statement.

The companies will use drones that have been modified with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon drone development toolkit and he company’s small modems like those built into smartphones, according to Wired. The engineers will test how well the drones can receive information and react to commands from the FAA’s air traffic control system like they would if they were soaring in the commercial airspace, the report noted.

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In February, AT&T said it would partner with Intel on a similar project testing how well drones could fly on wireless networks. Like Qualcomm, Intel (INTC) sees big money in the rising drone industry and hopes its competing RealSense camera technology catches on with robotics and drone companies.

Sept. 8 (8:15 pm) Correction: This story incorrectly identified the manufacturer of the modem used in the drone for test flights. It is Qualcomm.

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