As the drone industry leans in on 5G technology as a means of making applications like drone delivery feasible, AT&T is leveraging its 5G expertise in order to lean in on drone delivery. Telecommunications giant AT&T this month launched its 5G Innovation Studio, where it will test 5G-centric applications, which includes drones.
As part of the drone tests at the 5G Innovation Studio, AT&T partnered with Microsoft and drone company EVA on a project to explore how AT&T’s 5G network and edge computing could be used for near real-time drone control.
EVA has plans to put drone ports — which are airports for drones — in various markets to enable drone delivery, and the company wanted to test autonomous drone control beyond visual line of sight using 5G.
EVA initially reached out to AT&T looking for connectivity options for their drone infrastructure solution, according to an AT&T spokesperson. As the relationship developed, AT&T recognized that the low-latency of 5G and network edge would help them expand the capabilities of their autonomous drone operation. That ultimately led to developing a proof of concept running on a test environment representative of Microsoft Azure Edge Zone (Azure is Microsoft’s flagship cloud computing platform) to host EVA’s drone command control application.
5G is short for “fifth-generation networks” and it’s significantly faster networks than 4G. With 5G, you can download an entire movie to your phone within seconds that would take many times that to download over 4G. It’s vital to the drone industry, where 5G speeds mean not just the ability to quickly transfer massive files (e.g., from a mapping project), but they could also enable live, high-quality drone videos for use cases like broadcast TV, surveillance, drone racing and more.
In the case of the EVA project, the low latency of 5G combined with EVA’s app deployed at the network edge on Azure enabled autonomous drone control beyond visual line of sight. While it’s just a proof of concept for now, network and cloud scalability could lead to a future of drone delivery in metro areas.
The eventual goal of such a partnership and future work growing out of the 5G Innovation Studio would be to drive the adoption of drone traffic on AT&T’s network, an AT&T spokesperson said. Telecommunications giants are fighting to become leaders in drone use cases related to 5G.
Competitor Verizon has already been working in the area of drone delivery. Huge waves were made when Verizon acquired Skyward in 2017. Earlier this year, Skyward announced the successful outcome of a test partnership with UPS Flight Forward (the drone delivery arm of UPS). The duo are currently in the early phases of testing 5G integration for drone delivery to The Villages, a retirement community in Florida.
What is the AT&T 5G Innovation Studio?
The AT&T 5G Innovation Studio is located in Plano, Texas, which is also home to AT&T’s Chief Data Office. It’s equipped with a data center, prototype edge environments, 5G networks and co-working space to create and test solutions.
The Plano location is also just a short drive from AT&T’s headquarters in Downtown Dallas, which is growing as a strong tech and networking ecosystem and startup/entrepreneur community beyond just drones. A number of companies (including many that started in Silicon Valley, such as Uber) have moved to Dallas to open additional corporate offices, as did other Silicon Valley shakers like real estate tech company Redfin. Interdrone 2021 is also still happening this year in Dallas.
Alas, although the AT&T 5G Innovation Studio sounds like the Disneyland of drones and tech, you can’t actually visit it. “Innovation Studio” is essentially just a fancy name for an R&D (research and development) office. Sadly, the AT&T 5G Innovation Studio is not open to everyone from the public. Visitors are mostly limited to external collaborators (like EVA) and customers.