Air Traffic Management Magazine recently had the opportunity to speak with Matthew Tuck, Senior Manager Network Operations, Wireless Enterprise – Drones and Chris Sanders, Frontline Crisis Response Manager. Both are at Verizon and responsible for the drone program in the Public Safety market.

Hurricane Ian is a recent example of how Verizon put drones into action in the face of a crisis. The support began with the need to provide situational awareness for the first responders. The drones which provide this support are equipped with video, speakers to interact with injured individuals, thermal imaging and infrared imaging to help identify the location of individuals that cannot be seen with the human eye.

Mapping applications help to provide a before and after view that allows public safety organisations to determine how to react. Photogrammetry is used to support this application. In this natural disaster, the cellular service was cut to Sanibel and Pine Islands. Tethered drones with small cell radio were able to ‘connect’ the individuals stranded in these locations with the outside world. Satellite connectivity also played a role in keeping people in these locations connected until cellular service could be fully restored.

Verizon can provide inspection and imagery of damage to the power and telecommunications infrastructure in order to reduce the amount of time spent in unsafe conditions of the employees of these organisations. Additionally, this helps to be better prepared for what work needs to be done to take action in a shorter timeframe. By reducing the number of tower climbs needed to survey damage, these teams can begin to focus on repair and restoration.

How does this exactly work? Verizon owns and operates the drones that are in use. With a fleet of Part 107 certified pilots who are employees of the company they are fully in control of the drones provided in support of public safety organisations. There are around 200 pilots today.

This is not a service the public safety organisations are charged for. ATM asked about the opportunity to offer wider drone services in the future in support of enterprise fleets, for example. Although this isn’t currently in the plans, they could see a future opportunity to provide support for power companies, pipeline owners and railroads with their infrastructure survey needs.

We also considered the implications of 5G to the drone program. The main difference with this network would be a reduction in the time it takes to create a map. With rapid mapping, the solution would be near real-time and in situations like wildfires this would be a big help to the firefighting authorities. This is by no means the only thing Verizon is doing in the drone space. This discussion focused on public safety.

Looking ahead to UAM, there is an important role for the wireless network to enable BVLOS flying. Being able to predict where there is adequate cellular coverage for UAMs to fly will be an important topic. This could be something where both cellular and satellite, possibly low earth orbit satellites (LEOs), play a role to provide connectivity based on who has better coverage to offer. The FAA will need to communicate with these aircraft and their communications will need to have a resilient network to support them.

It's great to see the wireless network moving into new areas that enable future flying applications!