NASA and AT&T drone monitoring system

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.


  1. They are also supposed to provide wifi… I’m OK with the monitoring as long as anti-hacking abilities are maintained to prevent takeovers. I could see a serious issue with hacking here.

    • Anti-hacking abilities are moreso defined by the drone operator or commercial producer of the drone…unless you mean a seperate controller for the GPS in a way?

      Preventing takeovers at the moment suffers from weak communications technology between the operator and the drone. Some hardening protections include connection via VPN/TLS over encrypted 3/4g dedicated SIM…but these are all custom and not built in.

      Certain drones, like the AR.DRONE parrot, is highly susceptible to attacks over wifi, and in this case i’m unsure how the watchdog would protect against it. In my mind, i’d think this would (if say businesses were using the drone) cater for more tracking and determining the origin of the attacker.

      Will be very interesting to see how this technology works and the range/coverage of it!

      • I mean WHATEVER technology is capable of hacking into the system.
        From my stance, which is very limited in understanding and creativity, the drones will “monitor” activity and therefore that data is being sent to some receiving source; network. Hacking that network-source and then hacking the drone system is my concern in a nutshell. We have already witnessed poor preventative hacking systems in place and I could see people becoming more paranoid having these humming drones above our heads hoping they aren’t ever hacked. Furthermore, I could see the NSA getting their HANDS on the data… whereby, NOBODY can go anywhere without being monitored. You will be watched each and every step.

  2. Gee — how could giving ATT this much power backfire?
    I’m asking seriously, despite the sarcasm. My knee-jerk reaction is due to hating ATT.., I’m sure this could sucks eggs in ways I can’t even imagine.

    • I’m starting to wonder if the data analytics from something like this would be worth more than the product itself….(facebook – looking at you.)

      They could certainly provide more targeted insight to companies trying to sell drones, seeing where agricultural drones are being used most, provide insights to companies…the possibilities are endless. Let’s hope the ‘security’ side of it pans out more important than the potential monopoly that could be made.

  3. The is a good thing. A drone ATC is needed. Plus this is just the start of a conversation with NASA. Nothing official. There are other great companies out there that work in this space that can offer solutions such as AirMap. At the end of the day the drone industry needs this regardless if it comes from AT&T. FYI – I’m with Sprint 😉

  4. You know, if they make laws not stupid and want to see were I am flying, to make sure I am not a hazard to planes I am fine with this (and to help fight those who are idiots with there drones). I would have an issue if this was used as a sort of ‘traffic cam’ to find anyone flying. With all these amazon/pizza drones, there will need to be a system for those to be tracked for all of us.

    Like everything, it is how something is used, but I am not sure I trust our government to not abuse this system.

    • I’m starting to wonder if the data analytics from something like this would be worth more than the product itself….(facebook – looking at you.)
      They could certainly provide more targeted insight to companies trying to sell drones, seeing where agricultural drones are being used most, provide insights to companies…the possibilities are endless. Let’s hope the ‘security’ side of it.


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