While the idea of Amazon (AMZN -3.30%) filling the sky with drones to deliver packages sounds more than a little ridiculous, that does not mean all commercial prospects for unmanned flying vehicles should be dismissed.
Wal-Mart (WMT -1.08%), for example, wants to use drones to take inventory at its warehouses. That's a practical use that does not put people in danger nor does it create congestion in the airways. It also keeps drones out of heavily populated areas and minimizes the damage that would occur should there be a crash.
Now AT&T (T -1.50%) has said it has been testing drones. No, the company won't be using them to deliver the latest phones to customers, nor will it be offering bill-by-drone service. Instead, the company has come up with an idea that's sort of in between what Amazon wants and what Wal-Mart plans.
The wireless carrier wants to use drones as flying towers to enhance wireless coverage at concerts, conferences, sporting events, and other large gatherings.
Why is this needed?
If you've ever tried to use your phone at a big event -- be it a football game or a crowded concert -- you've probably experienced frustration. What happens is the volume of people simply overwhelms the existing infrastructure. Everyone wants to make calls, send texts, or use the internet at the same time, which causes service to either slow down or break down altogether.
AT&T wants to solve that by using tethered drones hovering near major events. That's not quite as safe as Wal-Mart using them in remote facilities, but there would be a lot fewer variables than in Amazon's plan to make door-to-door deliveries.
The wireless company is not doing this yet, but it does have some experience with unmanned flying vehicles since it uses them in remote locations to inspect its cell towers.
"By using drones to inspect a cell site, we're able to conduct inspections more quickly and safely – and even access parts of a tower that a human simply could not," AT&T Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan wrote in a July 13 blog post. "We anticipate this will allow us to improve our customers' experience by enhancing our cell sites faster than ever before."
That, AT&T said, should pave the way and provide needed experience for other commercial uses for drones.
"Possible uses include Flying COWs (Cell on Wings) providing LTE coverage at large events or even rapid disaster response," Donovan wrote. "A Flying COW may even be able to provide coverage when a vehicle is unable to drive to a designated area."
It just makes sense
While it's easy to take issue with Amazon's planned use of drones, what AT&T has suggested makes sense. In addition, it solves a problem especially for locations where large crowds are not typical.
At a sports stadium or conference venue, it might make sense to just increase capacity the old-fashioned way by adding infrastructure. But for events that push an area well above the normal crowd it gets, it's logical to use a temporary solution. In this case, a tethered drone could make it possible to share photos, videos, and even do simple things like text a friend your seat location.
That's a smart use for this technology and one likely to make AT&T customers happy while people on other networks wonder why they can't get wireless service. That's a powerful brand differentiator that could even lead to more subscribers.