AT&T has earned it’s reputation to become the third largest telecommunications company in the world. Now the company wants to pair with NASA and serve as a watchdog for all drones within the United States – and in the process, become a main icon in supervising the national airspace.

On 10th November, AT&T announced that they would be collaborating with NASA to develop and establish an Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management program. The program is aimed to allow agencies to monitor drones with the US with their primary goal focusing on cyber-security.

“Working with NASA and others, we are designing the management system for a new frontier in aviation”

Mike Leff, Vice President at AT&T Global Public Sector Solutions sees a huge market share for the technology: “Drones are already used in agriculture, public safety, construction, utilities, real estate and TV. This research can help support the commercial and private use of drones nationwide.”

AT&T claims that the program will make it safer for drone operators to plan and monitor flight paths, navigate drones, and use drones for surveillance. The company also claims that it’s main focus is to decrease, and hopefully eliminate, the risk of drone-related cyberattacks.

Outline of NASA and AT&T's plan
Outline of the system planned to be used by NASA.
Source: (insideunmannedsystems)

The current space of research within the project seems to be focusing on different wireless technologies, with a focus on the security vectors affecting the current drone landscape.

As with the increase in popularity of commercial drones, their potential for use has been both good and bad. Many commercial drones available today are prone to compromise, potentially leaving businesses utilising drones up for reputational and financial damage. Some hackers have even exposed vulnerabilities in commercial drones used by government agencies and police.

Although the threat of someone taking over a hobbyist’s drone might not pose as a national threat, theoretically a hacker could find an exploit in an internet-connected drone, use it as a gateway, and gain access to the network of the agency that operates it.

Similarly we may face a the ‘stolen plates’ dilemma seen in vehicle thefts today; drones being hijacked and then used to trespass private property to gain access to sensitive information. This can be done under the cover of someone else’s drone and potentially leave companies to face legal repercussions.

As drones become more sophisticated in both their use and functionality, companies will look towards technologies similar to the watchdog tech in hopes of securing and insuring their drones against theft, liability and damage.

AT&T and NASA aren’t the only ones trying to regulate the skies. In September DARPA announced the Aerial Dragnet program, requesting proposals for technology that would allow the government to monitor all objects flying below 1,000 feet.


However, AT&T’s initiative shows the company wants to have a foothold in the rapidly growing drone industry; and a central, controlling one at that.

The new system is just AT&T’s latest push into the drone market. In August, AT&T’s president of IoT Solutions, Chris Penrose, joined the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee.

In the previous month, the company launched their national drone program, which focused on the use of drones to inspect cell towers and boost LTE service in areas where a sudden influx of people would hinder wireless coverage (ex. concerts, sports events, and protests).

Although this is only the beginning of a drone monitoring system, we could begin to see countries worldwide adapt this system and see an increase of safety against the potential compromise and misuse of drones. We can only hope this doesn’t create more red-tape however, for casual flyers who probably seek a more passive, opt-in system for those not interested in the tech.