For Chris Desmond, Principal Engineer at Verizon Network, “Business as Usual” has a very specific meaning. The communications giant recognizes that the network is working optimally when customers don’t even notice it – when everything is functioning just “as usual.” Verizon’s Business as Usual Network Surveillance is part of their quality assurance program, and Desmond is the subject matter expert for the utilization of drones.
Verizon has been forward thinking when it comes to drones and IoT. Verizon signed an agreement with NASA to explore the concept of using its cell towers and communications network as part of an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system in 2015. In October of 2016, the company announced their Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) initiative to help promote wireless connectivity in flight. They have made multiple strategic investments and partnerships in the industry, including the acquisition of the Skyward drone management platform in 2017 and an investment in PrecisionHawk.
Beyond just participating in a vast portfolio of projects and trials to move airborne communications forward, Verizon is using drones to keep their core business going. Desmond explains that “within network,” the company utilizes drones for several broad needs. They’re an important part of the Business as Usual program, conducting cell tower inspections. They use drones to survey large venues, such as for major events or concerts, where Verizon will be providing communications. And more and more, drones are becoming critical in disaster response, when communications networks are most vulnerable.
Cell tower inspections were the first and most obvious use of drones. But, as Desmond describes, use cases quickly expanded to save time and legwork. Desmond has example after example of using drones to survey large venues: like the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racing site, which included over 14 different locations, some with the bleachers still under construction. “We utilized drones to survey the venue in a single day – vs. the weeks or even months that it would take to do the job on foot.” There was the outdoor Taylor Swift concert where the grass was still being grown, so the venue wouldn’t allow anyone to walk on it. And, says Desmond: “I’m working with various departments to evaluate using drones to prep for SuperBowl 53 in Atlanta – walking up and down the stairs and the bleachers is time intensive, so we’re eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to use drones to do that.”
More and more, says Desmond, drones are being used in disaster recovery scenarios. “In the Carolinas during Hurricane Matthew, we had one cell tower in a farm field surrounded by water. We used a drone to survey the tower’s physical aspects – the drone flew in from .25 to .5 mile away and streamed video to command center who could ask for more specific views,” he explains. “The camera was so precise that we could see that the exhaust flap from the generator wasn’t moving. We were able to contract with the National Guard to refuel the generator and get the site back up and running within an hour… It was an outstanding utilization of the technology.”
The speed of evaluation and response is critical in disaster recovery – and it can only be achieved with drones. In Hurricane Harvey, he describes, Verizon used 2 flight crews to survey 10 cell site locations in a single day: which would have been completely impossible with the traditional methods of climbers and riggers.
Verizon has a partnership with American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. (AATI): they are owner operators of large form factor drone that Verizon uses for airborne LTE ops and the “Flying Cell Site” projects. “They were early R & D partners,” explains Desmond. “They have access to enterprise sales, and we rely upon them for their expertise of aircraft with enterprise customers: gas, oil, water, power, and electric customers,” he says. “They partner with Verizon to deliver the data for those infrastructure inspections.”
Flying cell sites are another exciting application for drones and communications. “We have demonstrated the ability to put a small cell station in the air,” says Desmond. The cell station can be attached to a long-endurance drone and used strategically: for example, when a first response unit is going out into the woods or a flooded area, the drone could hover just over them to allow transmission. Or, for consumer purposes, a flying cell site might be used for entertainment: “You could tether a small base station for added coverage in at a remote event venue like Woodstock,” Desmond explains.
Airborne ALO is an active, viable product available today: placing a modem on an aircraft and using that modem to broadcast any data type at all to the cloud. “If the farmer can make a cell phone call from his tractor, he can send data from the drone,” says Desmond.
The uses keep expanding – and Verizon is continuing to push the envelope. Desmond says that from the day several years ago that his boss called him in and suggested that they “try to figure out this drone thing,” drone programs in the company have taken off. “It started out as simple things like cell tower inspections,” says Desmond, “but the use cases just continue to come in from a lot of enthusiastic and innovative engineers out there.”
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.