Drones prove their worth as emergency tools by bringing cellular connectivity to Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria destroyed telecom infrastructure and left the island disconnected for several weeks.
The use of drones in recovery efforts is not hot news. For some time now, providers have been testing them as tools to help rescuers survey areas before, during and after disasters. As an example, The Silicon Valley Fire Department in the USA have implemented drone aided programs into their emergency actions. Other agencies across the world have also conducted similar pilots – in 2016 two European fire departments, Donegal Mountain Rescue Team In Ireland and The Greater Copenhagen Fire Department in Denmark, tested drones during emergency situations.
Yet unlike others, the pilot on November 2017 focused on the use of drones as flying cell towers to provide connectivity in a real-life scenario. This was considered by AT&T, the US telecom provider deploying the drones, as an industry’s first.
The drone, popularly known as Flying COW or cell-wing site, was a pulse Vapor 55 designed to reach altitudes of 200 ft and beam signals to areas covering up to 40 sq miles. Because of its size, it needed to obtain special authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), given it exceeds the Maximum Take-off Weight(MTOW) for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which is less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).
These cell-sites on wings can operate without the need to be wired or be nearby wireless infrastructure, which is crucial in the aftermath of a natural disaster where infrastructure is damaged. They can also be easily deployed, thus reducing the time it takes to reinstate the service. For example, flying COWS can follow emergency crews to hover around them as they assist. Essentially, they provide temporary fixes until permanent solutions are rebuilt. In Puerto Rico this was a particular point of concern as residents were unable to contact Federal Emergency Management Agencies or fill out online forms for help requests, ZDNet said.
Apart from the clear humanitarian advantages, flying cell sites also provide many other commercial opportunities for telecom providers. Drones can be used to extend the cellular coverage in remote places or areas, where there are many natural obstacles as demonstrated by telecom provider Vodafone earlier in 2017 in Andalucia, Spain. Similarly, they can be used during events where there is high demand for data coverage, ie. sports games or festivals.
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