How Verizon Built One of the Largest Drone Programs in the U.S. – Skyward

Most people probably know Verizon primarily as a telecom provider and a leading technology company. But what they may not know is that Verizon also runs one of the largest commercial drone operations in the U.S.

Skyward is a Verizon company, and we’re proud to support Verizon’s nationwide drone program with fleet management software, airspace access, training, and more. As Skyward’s Services Delivery Manager, I get to directly support the various drone groups across Verizon, which gives me a unique look at the innovative work they’re doing.

I’d love to share a bit about Verizon’s drone program: how it came to be, and some of the critical work Verizon is doing with drones today.

The beginning: Launching Verizon’s drone program

Verizon is always looking for ways to advance technological innovation, reduce expenses, and improve worker safety as it maintains thousands of cell towers and rolls out new technologies like 5G. So, in 2016, Verizon began to explore what it would take to launch a successful drone program.

Verizon employees had often expressed curiosity about putting drones to work on the job. One Verizon business unit even began to operate a program using drones to create video content and gather news. But to establish a successful nationwide drone program, formal structure and oversight would need to be established.

Facts about Verizon's drone programVerizon Cell Tower Drone Shot

Verizon acquires Skyward

In February 2017, Verizon acquired Skyward, a startup focused on commercial drone operations management software and professional services.

Verizon began managing all of its drone operations in Skyward’s Aviation Management Platform. Skyward houses all operating information in this one digital system, including pre-flight planning, airspace access, mission approval, equipment management, risk assessment, flight logging, reporting, and more. Even with hundreds of pilots, Verizon executives can see every drone operation across the enterprise, from a high-level overview down to individual flights.

“As a group, we log everything through the Skyward platform,” said Matt Tuck, Sr. Manager of Network Engineering & Operations at Verizon. “I can easily pull a report, take a look at the flights, and see the type of flight being exercised. Going from spreadsheets to an automated reporting system, where everything is housed in one central place, is super important.”

Today, Verizon uses Skyward to train its drone teams and manage every drone flight across the company — and to offer drone management services to the industry at large.

Establishing drone policies, procedures, and management

Verizon leveraged Skyward and other aviation expertise to develop a strong internal drone program. In late 2017, Verizon released its internal drone policy, establishing one source of truth for any business unit interested in flying drones. Firm policies and standard operating procedures enabled Verizon’s drone program to get off the ground while setting clear boundaries.

The new drone program had central management beneath Verizon’s corporate aviation department. At the same time, Verizon offered individual drone teams a high level of autonomy, allowing them to perform the missions required by their business needs. While central policies and accountability promoted high-quality programs, each business unit was empowered to organically support its own individual use cases.

Skyward Professional Services Drone Training

Expanding Verizon’s drone program across the nation

Additional teams across Verizon began launching drone programs, and the company quickly saw widespread adoption. But with rapid growth, the centralized aspects of Verizon’s drone program became too much for a small group to manage alone.

Verizon set up a Drone Steering Committee with buy-in at the Executive VP level to promote growth and development across Verizon’s drone program. The Drone Steering Committee eventually transitioned into the Aviation Steering Committee, which helps to manage the company’s drone operations alongside its other aviation programs.

In 2020, Verizon grew its drone program by more than 95 pilots, with more than a 250% increase in flights and operations logged. This growth was enabled by strong central policies along with autonomy at the team level. Verizon continues to expand their programs rapidly today.

How Verizon finds ROI using drones

Today, business units across Verizon use drones for a wide variety of jobs, including:

  • Vertical infrastructure inspection
  • Bird nest inspection
  • Land surveying
  • Disaster response
  • Line of sight surveying
  • Photography
  • Videography
  • Event coverage
  • Photogrammetry
  • 5G testing
  • Thermal surveying
  • Fiber inspection
  • Drone innovation testing

Verizon drone flight in the air

Teams across Verizon are also seeing a great return on investment using drones. For example, take Verizon Network Assurance, which ensures that Verizon’s networks are operating reliably and providing optimal service to customers. With 21 subgroups across the nation, Verizon Network Assurance’s 150+ drone pilots have collectively accrued more than 5,600 flights and more than 1,300 flight hours as of July 2021.

By using drones to reduce the number of times a worker has to climb a telecom tower, Verizon Network Assurance estimates that the group saved roughly $850,000 in 2020 alone — and more than $1.4 million since the inception of the program in 2019. And that’s not to mention the huge improvements in safety when sending up a drone instead of a human climber.

“Any time we can reduce a tower climb, we’ve effectively done two things,” said Matt Tuck. “#1 we’ve saved cost, and #2 we’ve made it a little bit safer.”

Verizon, Skyward, and cellular-connected drones

Skyward and Verizon are enabling drones to connect to cellular networks, a capability poised to revolutionize the drone industry. Verizon believes that providing remote command and control of drones over 4G LTE and 5G cellular networks will enable the operations of the future, such as flights beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the drone operator, remote deployments, and rapid data transfer.

To accelerate the development of BVLOS operations and connected drones at scale, Verizon established Skyward’s Aviation Development Center (ADC). Powered by Verizon network infrastructure, the Aviation Development Center tests and deploys drones connected to Verizon’s cellular networks with the end goal of enabling Universal Traffic Management and other future capabilities.

Today, connectivity is already enabling remote drone missions that would be impossible to complete any other way. The Verizon network powered the first true BVLOS drone flight with no visual observers when Skyward responded to the Big Hollow wildfire by remotely monitoring critical Verizon communications infrastructure with drones.

Skyward Verizon BVLOS Drone Flight

In 2021, Skyward and Verizon, along with drone manufacturer Parrot, launched ANAFI Ai, the world’s first drone powered by Verizon 4G LTE. In addition, Skyward is working with both the FAA and FCC to collect and analyze relevant data for drone connectivity. This work, along with Verizon’s network expertise, will help Verizon propose standards for drone operations over commercial wireless spectrum.

Skyward and Verizon are charting the future of drone connectivity. The goal is to provide the next level of operational control — the automation that makes drone flights safer, easier, and delivers more value to customers.

Want to learn how Skyward can help your enterprise start or expand a drone program?

See how Skyward’s software, connectivity, training, and innovation can help you take your drone program further, faster.

Want to learn even more about Verizon’s drone program? Download the case study.

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