Aerial internet connections will likely be crucial for courier drones and other robotic aircraft, but modern-day cell towers are usually designed to serve people on the ground, not machines in the skies. What to do? Carnegie Mellon researchers might have an answer. They’ve converted an old ambulance into a full cellular network, and they’re using it to test connections to quadcopter drones carrying phones on their stomachs. As it turns out, in-air wireless links aren’t that reliable using current technology — you need to point the antennas upward, and the signals propagate differently above a cell site than they do below.
Provided scientists can refine the experience, there might be a shift in how cellular networks are built. Rather than focusing on tower-building in populated areas, companies might also think about coverage that keeps drones online as long as possible. That, in turn, could lead to unmanned vehicles that can easily receive new instructions mid-flight (such as a new shipping address), or send you a message when they get close.