AT&T deploys LTE-equipped flying COW drone in Puerto Rico

AT&T drone (AT&T)
The flying COW hovers 200 feet above the ground and can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites. (AT&T)

AT&T said that for the first time, it’s deployed a flying COW (Cell on Wings) in Puerto Rico to help with relief efforts.

Considered experimental, the technology is providing data, voice and text services to customers. AT&T said it marks the first time an LTE cell site on a drone has been successfully deployed to connect residents after a disaster.

Cell sites on wheels, or COWs, routinely have been used on the ground to supply service during outages or at high-traffic events. This particular COW flies 200 feet above the ground and can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites, making it ideal for remote areas. The device is delivering wireless connectivity to customers in an up to 40-square-mile area, AT&T said.

Being the network provider behind FirstNet, AT&T sees a lot of potential uses for LTE-connected drones for first responders.

“An unprecedented event such as Hurricane Maria has required we look to innovative solutions to connect customers, first responders, and disaster recovery teams,” AT&T said in a blog post. “From our involvement with Vanu, to our unique use of portable cell sites at the base of clusters of cell towers, testing the Flying COW is just one way we’re using technology in new ways.”

Last month, T-Mobile also revealed it is working with Vanu, the cellular antenna system/software defined radio company headed by Vanu Bose, to deploy several self-contained portable cellular network units that provide voice, data and text capabilities in some of the hardest hit areas. (Bose is the son of Amar Bose, founder of speaker company Bose Corporation.)

RELATED: T-Mobile joins AT&T in collaborating with Project Loon in Puerto Rico

At that time, T-Mobile also announced it was joining the efforts to help Project Loon get services deployed in Puerto Rico. Project Loon reported near the end of last month that it was able to deliver basic internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people in Puerto Rico thanks to the support of all its partners there.

AT&T today reported that nearly 70% of the population it serves in Puerto Rico and nearly 95% of the population in the U.S. Virgin Islands are connected now. Currently deployed in the San Juan area, AT&T plans to relocate its flying COW in the coming days to support additional areas, including the military hospital at Manati.

Overall, the situation in Puerto Rico still is not good. According to the FCC, a total of 47.8% of cell sites in Puerto Rico remained out of service as of Monday, something FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has deemed unacceptable. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai met with authorities in Puerto Rico on Sunday and Monday to assess the situation and meet with government and industry officials about ways of moving forward.

Others also are lending their support to get people online. Liberty Global is sponsoring a mobile Wi-Fi tour providing free internet to communities throughout Puerto Rico most severely impacted by Hurricane Maria. Kymeta, a company Liberty Global has previously invested in, is supplying the satellite antennas while Intelsat is delivering the internet connectivity. They actually equipped three vehicles with Kymeta’s antennas so that they can move the connectivity around the island to where people need it the most.

RELATED: Kymeta lends unique antenna technology to relief efforts in Puerto Rico

Verizon has been using drones for tower inspections in the Southeast after Harvey and Irma struck but it does not own or operate a network in Puerto Rico, so it’s not actively engaged in drone flights there, a spokeswoman said. It is, however, supporting roaming partners and the community at large in several ways.

Besides monetary donations, Verizon sent engineers to assist in the roaming efforts and a miniature cell site was shipped and set up in an emergency response team command center in San Juan for officials to help coordinate recovery efforts.  A shipping container is expected to leave the port of Jacksonville, Florida, in the coming days and will include portable generators, antennas, two mobile cell sites and other gear to assist agencies.

RELATED: Sprint tests flying Magic Box

Sprint has also talked about potentially using a version of its Magic Box to help provide service after natural disasters or during especially high-traffic events. Sprint formed a partnership with drone manufacturer CyPhy Works to create a lighter version of the Airspan-produced Magic Box.

In September, Sprint put the revised Magic Box to the test as an aerial small cell solution in Midlothian, Texas, which is about 30 miles outside of Dallas. The aerial small cell is designed to be a rapidly deployable solution capable of extending Sprint’s 2.5 GHz data service initially up to 10 square miles.