In addition to carrying LTE equipment to provide broadband cellular coverage, the extreme-weather drone analyzers to monitor RF performance and search for sources of RF interference—features primarily for AT&T use, Pregler said. But the new drone also features high-definition camera and thermal imaging capabilities that should prove useful to enterprise customers and especially first responders, he said.

“Think about first responders operating in remote locations, battling a rapidly moving wildfire that has charred the infrastructure they need to communicate. Or search-and-rescue crews whose mission takes them off the beaten path where a network doesn’t exist,” Pregler wrote in a blog posted on the AT&T web site. “The all-weather Flying COW has the capability to hover above harsh conditions and remote terrain to keep them connected when other drone and deployable options aren’t viable

“Plus, with its thermal-imaging capabilities, the all-weather drone can ‘see’ through certain types of roofs to guide firefighters around burning trusses, helping them to avoid stepping in areas that may be ready to collapse. This capability can also help search-and-rescue teams locate people trapped between collapsed buildings following an earthquake or lost hikers hidden from view under dense tree cover. Between its durability and imaging capabilities, the uses of our all-weather drone are endless for fire, police and search and rescue. And we’re thrilled to provide this life-saving technology for them.”

AT&T is still finalizing how to make the drone LTE coverage capability available to customers, Pregler said.

“We’re pretty sure that it’s going to be available as a service—meaning AT&T would be operating it for customers—but we’re still exploring the option of having the customer own the equipment and operate it themselves,” he said.

Looking ahead, AT&T also is evaluating the possibility of using untethered drones, as well as working with manufacturers to reduce the form factor and weight of LTE equipment, so it can be flown more easily on drones, Pregler said.

“What we’ve been doing to date is primarily taking off-the-shelf, existing LTE equipment that was not designed for drones and configuring it so it can operate from a drone,” he said. “Now that the industry and equipment manufacturers are seeing that it’s a viable use, now they’re starting to customize the equipment for drones.”

In addition, AT&T recently conducted a drone demonstration in cooperation with the University of Washington aerospace-engineering and electrical-engineering departments, which designed some new antenna prototypes for use on drones, Pregler said.

“They developed five different antennas that were designed specifically for our drone and for our LTE network,” Pregler said. “We gave them the challenge of having an antenna that can perform equal to the antennas we have on there now, but we wanted it to be a smaller form factor—we wanted it to take up less space, and we wanted it to be lighter.”