Controlling a drone from 60km away via smartphone in Japan.

The same network technology that Japan’s smartphone users rely on is being tested to control drones up to 60km away.

If commercialized, the method could speed up the proliferation of drones in the distribution, security and other industries.

The Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory, a Chiba University venture, flies smartphone-equipped drones using the Long-Term Evolution network. The drones are controlled from NTT DoCoMo base stations.

Generally, drones run by radio wave can be controlled from no more than 1km away or so. The high-speed LTE network, however, allows for drones to be controlled from distances 60 times that.

Chiba University’s laboratory has successfully controlled a drone at NTT DoCoMo’s R&D Center in Kanagawa Prefecture’s Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, from a site in Chiba, about 60km east of Tokyo.

In July, Japan’s communications ministry relaxed restrictions on using phones for flight purposes so mobile carriers and other parties could test smartphone-equipped drones on the LTE network.

After obtaining the proper license, DoCoMo on Sept. 9 began trial flights in cooperation with the university laboratory.

Drones flying with the aid of the LTE network can send images and reports on flying conditions. And flying drones on an existing network requires no additional infrastructure investment.

DoCoMo and the laboratory plan to analyze data on in-flight communications conditions and on possible interference with ground communications in a bid to sort out problems before commercializing the technology.

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