Verizon Skyward telecom drone FAA BVLOS UTM

Verizon is testing cellular-connected drones with the FAA

Drones could one day operate via cellular connection — and mobile network giant Verizon wants to be a part of it when they do.

Skyward, a one-time startup that was acquired by Verizon in 2017, signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to test cellular-connected drones. That level of connectivity could help improve the ability to conduct more complex drone flights including flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) or flights that would occur in relatively crowded airspace that would need universal traffic management (UTM) capabilities.

Skyward and the FAA signed what’s called a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) titled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)—Cellular Technologies to Support UAS Activities.” Under that agreement, Verizon’s Skyward and the FAA will use the next three years to “mutually research the capabilities of cellular communication networks for command and control within the National Airspace System.”

What can you expect from the FAA’s tests with Verizon?

Today, most commercial drones use unlicensed spectrum. Verizon says that restricts range and can be subject to interference, which won’t work for more complex operations.

During the three years that encompass the MOA, the two groups are able to propose standards for operations, including BVLOS flights, and flights occurring over the commercial wireless spectrum. Data and other information gathered through the test will then be submitted to the FAA’s BVLOS Advisory and Rulemaking Committee. 

That BVLOS Advisory and Rulemaking Committee is quite new, having been created just last month and announced at the 6th annual FAA Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Symposium. The committee, which is made up of more than 80 organizations tasked with providing recommendations to the FAA for performance-based regulatory requirements to normalize safe, scalable, economically viable, and environmentally friendly drone flights.

Verizon’s Skyward itself is a member of the committee, as are other technology and network infrastructure companies including AT&T, Qualcomm and T-Mobile (you can view the full list of members here).

And ultimately, that information will likely inform regulations regarding spectrum used in the command and control link between the drone operator and their drones.

Verizon has long been interested in drones. As far back as October 2016, the telecom giant announced that it would sell data plans specifically for drones, starting at $25 a month for 1 gigabyte of data and $80 for 10 gigabytes. That plans would allow drones to connect to the internet in flight for streaming videos and other data to the ground. More recently, Verizon has hd its hands in aspects of the drone industry including demonstrating proof of concepts for Remote ID.

These days, Verizon is focusing more on safety and improving operational efficiency of drones.

“Cellular-connected drones play a critical role in enabling tomorrow’s safe, reliable, and secure drone operations,” said Matt Fanelli, Director of Strategy and Operations at Skyward in a prepared statement. “We are thrilled to be laying this foundation with the FAA and are confident that our efforts will help inform technical standards from which industry regulations authorizing low-risk BVLOS and one-to-many operations will flow.”

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