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October 11, 2012

Look Up in the Sky! 4G LTE Powers Drone over One-Half Mile

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

I am not a hobbyist of model airplane flying, or for that matter model anything flying except in simulators. That said, every weekend my wife and I walk our dog at a huge park near us where a radio control (RC) enthusiasts put their prize passions through their paces. It is beautiful to watch, amazing to consider the level of control that can be exerted, and a bit noisy. 

In fact, what I am a fan of is wireless technology of all types. In particular, I am increasingly drawn to the increased ability of next generation wireless capabilities to enable all kinds of interesting things at greater and greater distances, from remote metering for smart grids to remote video surveillance for public safety applications.  

Because of my wireless curiosity, I tend to follow the latest application of 4G LTE (News - Alert) as it literally spreads it wings around the world. It was thus striking when I read a recent blog by André Méchaly, VP Marketing and Communications, Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) West & South Europe, who documented a new distance record being set for a mass marketed drone piloted using an 4G LTE smartphone.

Pardon the pun, but I am not going to drone on. The video says it all. 


What you see in the video is that French company Parrot’s AR.Drone quadricopter, typically equipped with two cameras and controlled via Wi-Fi from a smartphone, can now be controlled by 4G LTE far beyond its  Wi-Fi range of less than 100 meters. As the blog notes, Alcatel-Lucent engineers (the prototypers of the Bell Labs (News - Alert) Acceleration Platform) and the engineers from Parrot got together to discuss a proof of concept for piloting an AR.Drone using 4G/LTE.

The goal was not only to exceed the limited Wi-Fi range including when the drone is out of sights, but also to validate that 4G LTE’s quality of service would allow the drone to transmit HD video streams to the smartphone being used as the controller. 

What the collaborators created was an ‘LTE bubble.’  This is described as an ad hoc network with a base station like the one used in 4G/LTE commercial networks and an ultra compact virtualized core network.  The AR.Drone was given a standard 4G USB key and used a commercial 4G smartphone.

The result was an outside flight that set a world record of over 1km (roughly half a mile). The test was carried out by a professional pilot and within a secure parameter, but it proved that 4G LTE could deliver as advertised and it opens up an entire new world of possibilities.

From a strictly technology perspective, the flight of the drone proved the superiority of 4G LTE for distance, responsiveness and quality of user experience. From a business perspective, literally “it is all up in the air” and up for grabs. Indeed, the list of possible uses of inexpensive commercial drones in the blog makes for a fascinating mix of fun things, practical things and things that civil libertarians are going to consider to be “big brother” activities. It included:       

  • Fire fighters could monitor fires as they break out
  • Farmers could keep an eye on crops or cattle
  • Meetings or amateur sporting events could be broadcast
  • Journalists could use them for investigation
  • Security services could use them for reconnaissance

The two I like the best are the first two. Inexpensive and flexible aerial reconnaissance for use by first responders during wide-scale catastrophes, particularly a low levels where helicopters may not be able to fly, could be invaluable. It is even a step up from the capabilities of being touted by radio controlled dirigibles because of speed and maneuverability.

The crop and cattle one really resonates because of the vast distances that could be easily watched. I could use a bit of fact checking by somebody, but I have been told that commercial GPS was invented when the head of Rockwell International was seeking a solution to keep track of cattle on his Montana ranch. The solution was to put a GPS transceiver around the neck of the lead cow. The rest as they say is history.

While this is not akin to the coming attempt by daredevil Felix Baumgartner to break the world’s free-fall record by skydiving from a balloon from 120,000 feet up, where he hopes to break the sound barrier, this is a record to take note of. No more out of sight is out of mind. As the blog rightfully concludes, “The sky’s the limit!” Chalk another one up for 4G LTE.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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