PORTLAND, Ore. - AT&T has more than 65,000 cell towers across the United States and 15,000 cell tower technicians to keep the network running smoothly.
Until earlier this year, those technicians had to scale towers as high as 300 feet to make a simple inspection. Drones are changing all that.
Drones are often in the news when they crash or go awry, but for AT&T they are becoming a powerful tool not only for maintaining cell towers, but providing cellular service during disasters or when towers are damaged by weather, fire or floods.
"In some cases the tower climbers will go up just take photographs and in those instances we can use the drone to fly the tower and tower technician doesn't need to climb at all," said Art Pregler, director of the program. "Also, we can put electronics on the drone themselves and allow the drone to provide temporary cell phone coverage to emergency first responders and the general public."
While most drones have limited flight times because they are battery powered, others can fly for a long, long time, Pregler said.
"We can connect them to a cable or tether coming down to the ground and that cable will provide power and transport to the drone so that the drone can stay aloft indefinitely."
The drones can also fly in bad weather or get to towers when vehicles cannot due to ice or snow storms or a tower has gone offline.
"There are a lot of reasons why towers go down on occasion," Pregler said. "And in such cases we can fly drones into the area to assess the damage to figure out a path for our tower technicians to get to the site."
AT&T officials say they're also looking at how drones could send large amounts of data in real-time, which they say could benefit insurance agents assessing damage, farmers and other large-scale applications in remote areas.