Things Looking Up for Drones

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

The Evolution of Communication Technology

The age of drones, which has been sneaking up on us for several years, is fully here.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy yesterday announced a wide-ranging program to promote the commercial drone industry. Steps include a $35 million, five-year research funding project by the National Science Foundation; a “broad range” of support from the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI); a $5 million “down payment” to New York to support the industry; and a commitment by industry groups to support an educational effort around privacy best practices.

Google parent company Alphabet will cooperate on part of the initiative called Project Wing. The testing is aimed at exploring issues related to drone delivery services, according to Bloomberg. The company will conduct experiments at one of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sites with an eye toward setting standards for commercial services.

The government is not the only entity working on drones. For instance, last month AT&T began using drones for aerial inspections of cell towers. The company, in part of the announcement excerpted by The Verge, said that drones do the job more quickly, more safely and more comprehensively than humans. In the future, drones may play an even more interesting role for the carrier: They will be dispatched to hover over crowded areas, such as concerts or disaster sites, to temporarily boost wireless coverage.

A lower-profile company set to use drones is Zipline, a startup supported with funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Its goal is to deliver medical supplies to inaccessible areas in the United States. It has already delivered supplies in partnership with the government of Rwanda.

Zipline, which will initially serve remote areas in Maryland, Nevada and Washington, is not the first to perform this task. Business Insider says that Flirtey, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, delivered medical supplies in Cape May, N.J. in a demonstration for the United Nations.

The news is good for drones. At the same time, as the administration’s move suggests, a lot of work remains. RCR Wireless, in a story on Amazon’s partnership with the UK government for drone delivery of parcels, pointed to areas that must be addressed. Technology enabling maintenance of Internet and GPS connectivity is key. Drone-to-drone communications, obstacle avoidance and standardized protocols also must be developed.

It has long been clear that drones will play a big role in corporate and civic life. We are at the point now at which the government and industry are working through the technical and regulatory issues that must be solved in order to make this happen.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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