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Drones Drive New Revenue Streams for Mobile Ecosystem

Brian Wynne

Drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are big business. According to an AUVSI report on the industry's economic impact, in the first three years of UAS integration, more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the US with an economic impact of more than US$13.6 billion. This benefit will grow during the next ten years, when we have forecast more than 100,000 jobs created and economic impact of $82 billion.

As part of this impact, the use of unmanned systems is driving new opportunities in a range of industries, including mobile.

The use of drone technology is already changing the game for wireless, as new regulations have enabled the commercial use of UAS. From the infrastructure perspective, carriers such as AT&T are already using drones for tower inspections, siting and mapping. This will result in easier, faster, better network buildouts.

But unmanned systems are not just useful for carrier infrastructure. In fact, they represent a valuable new revenue stream. Last October, Verizon announced that it would begin selling data plans for drones, allowing them to stream video, pictures and data from sensors back to the user. The technology has broad application across a variety of industries, including agriculture, transportation, oil and gas, and many others. Offering data plans for drones opens up a new enterprise data revenue stream for carriers. In fact, Verizon is betting big on drones, having invested both in PrecisionHawk, which analyzes information gathered by drones, and Skyward, a drone operations software company, which Verizon recently purchased. (See Verizon Adds Drone Management Platform and Verizon Buys Skyward.)

The market for unmanned systems is just beginning to be tapped. In fact, precision agriculture and public safety -- the two verticals that are driving 90% of the growth in the sector -- are critical to the public good and therefore of very high interest to investors and consumers. For carriers, these represent important markets with high revenue potential.

Precision agriculture taps into the global interest in sustainable farming practices that will feed an exploding population. Sensors that send information back on plant health, hydration and growth rate will leverage mobile broadband technology to ensure farmers apply the right inputs to each individual plant. Always-on connectivity is extremely valuable to the agronomists using the technology, and they will be willing to pay for it.

Similarly, public safety requires mobile broadband connections, and is of key importance to federal and local governments. The First Responder Network Authority is building a national high-speed wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. Carriers are partnering with FirstNet and local public safety departments to expand the US's capabilities in this area.

2017 promises to be a year of opportunity for the unmanned systems sector, and for the mobile industry to capitalize on this growth. We expect to see more carriers join Verizon in investing in the space, and a host of mobile apps and services companies spring up to drive the industry forward.

— Brian Wynne, President and CEO, AUVSI

AUVSI's upcoming conference -- XPONENTIAL 2017 -- takes place in Dallas May 8-11 and features an educational track dedicated to exploring the opportunities for UAS in wireless. Among the program's participants are thought leaders from government agencies, such as DOD, FAA, NASA and NOAA, and commercial organizations, including AT&T, Cisco, General Electric, Spirent Communications, Qualcomm, Intel and Facebook.

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