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AT&T and Qualcomm want to connect commercial drones to cell networks

Depending on who you ask, commercial drone operations are either a necessary component of the supercool future we’re all going to live in, or the first sign of Skynet’s global takeover and our impending doom. But for commercial drone applications, like Amazon’s airborne delivery service, to pan out at all, they will need a system of communication that allows them to travel farther, safer (and that will hopefully fend off doomsday scenarios). AT&T and Qualcomm are currently looking into allowing drones to connect to cell towers to achieve this goal, according to a report in Wired.

One of the biggest limitations facing drones currently is their reliance on Wi-Fi or other direct radio frequency control, so an aircraft can only travel so far from its controller. Allowing drones to connect to cell towers would theoretically permit their control from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, much like how you can control a Nest thermostat from your phone when you’re away from home.

Related: Qualcomm unveils Snapdragon flight SoC for drones

However, current FAA regulations also require that a drone remain within visual range of its operator, a rule the AT&T and Qualcomm hope to overturn if they can prove the efficacy of their system. “There are a lot of great, innovative ideas for drone use out there, but we first need new technology that proves that the devices can fly safely over populated areas and in the national airspace,” Paul Guckian, head of engineering at Qualcomm, told Wired. Guckian had previously played an integral role in developing Wi-Fi systems on commercial airlines.

While the idea is for drones to use the same type of modem hardware found in phones, they will need to operate with a much smaller margin of error. Drones have to receive a signal anywhere from ground level to 400 feet in the air (the maximum altitude allowed by the FAA). They can also move quickly, and will need a reliable method for switching from one cell tower to the next as they travel.

While many commercial drones are planned to operate autonomously, a reliable system that allows for human intervention is important to providing a safety net. In the future, drones could be used for much more than package delivery, including search and rescue operations, environmental and infrastructure monitoring, and more.