Verizon will soon start offering data plans for drones, allowing pilots to connect their devices to the telecom's network to stream video and transmit other data to a computer or smartphone on the ground. The plans will start at 1GB for $25 a month and 10GB for $80 a month, according to The Wall Street Journal. While media transmission is one obvious use case, having working LTE mobile chips on drones could also in the future help companies pilot them remotely. Verizon says it expects commercial operations to be particularly interested in its drone data plans, including industries like energy, agriculture, and nature and wildlife preservation. Verizon will also test drones as aerial cell towers to patch holes in its network coverage.
As it stands today, most drones use public airwaves to communicate with a traditional remote control, which is then tethered either with a wire or by Bluetooth to a device with an internet connection. This is how video or photographs are typically transmitted live, while onboard action cams from GoPro and other manufacturers let drone pilots record media and retrieve it later. With a Verizon data plan, drones could be connected to the network directly and bypass the need to communicate with on-the-ground devices. For companies with delivery ambitions, like Amazon and Google, this could be especially important as ferrying packages requires pilots to operate the drones remotely and without a line of sight.
Verizon has named its new drone business Airborne LTE Operations, or ALO
Regulations set forth by the Federal Aviation Authority still prohibit the use of drones at heights higher than 400 feet and outside a pilot's sight line. Yet the FAA has begun exempting certain companies to allow delivery testing in specific areas. As part of a White House initiative to bolster the US drone industry, Google-owner Alphabet has teamed up with Chipotle and Virginia Tech to begin a pilot program to test burrito delivery for campus students and faculty. It's unclear whether any current or future drone delivery pilot program will rely on Verizon data plans. But the telecom is calling its new drone business Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) and hopes unmanned aerial vehicles could provide a revenue stream when FAA regulations are more lenient and piloting becomes a more mainstream commercial and hobbyist activity.