Soon, companies will be able to get a data plan for their drones.
Verizon Communications Inc. said Thursday it would begin working with drone makers to connect the flying vehicles to Verizon’s wireless network. Drone data plans will start at $25 a month for 1 gigabyte of data and $80 for 10 gigabytes, company officials said in an interview. The prices roughly align with what consumers pay now for data.
Initially, the data plans will allow drones to essentially connect to the internet during flight, and stream videos, pictures or other sensory data back to earth. Verizon says it could be used by companies that inspect oil pipelines, farming yields or wildfires. But the service could eventually evolve into a means of piloting drones remotely.
Federal regulations currently require a drone operator to remain in direct sight of the drone, and the devices in most cases can’t be flown higher than 400 feet without special permission. Drones today are typically operated with remote controls that use free, public airwaves to create a direct link between the pilot and the drone.
Future drone regulations, which could allow the use of autonomous delivery drones that firms such as Amazon.com Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. are testing, are still hotly debated, and widespread package-delivery operations are at least several years away. Verizon hopes its new service will help inform that discussion by providing data on how companies use the service, which Verizon is calling Airborne LTE Operations, or ALO.
“We believe we are uniquely positioned to enable the sort of data collection that will be necessary for regulators to make these decisions,” said David McCarley, a technology fellow at Verizon Wireless. This service will help move the discussion “from the white board to the tarmac.”
Verizon also plans to use drones like flying cell towers to plug holes in its own network during emergencies, such as when networks are damaged during storms. The carrier already has trucks and trailers with temporary cell towers used in such situations, and the drones will eventually be added to that toolkit.
Verizon has been working on the technology for two years, and on Thursday held a demonstration in Cape May, N.J., with drone-maker American Aerospace Technologies Inc. AT&T Inc. has also been testing methods to connect drones to its network. Both carriers are facing slowing growth in their core wireless businesses as the majority of Americans now have smartphones, and connecting more objects to the network—like drones—are an important, if unproven, future revenue stream.
Tech companies like Facebook Inc. have been experimenting for several years with using drones as a means to connect remote areas to the internet, but the idea has remained a test project.