AT&T’s Flying COW drone is now grazing the skies of Puerto Rico, providing talk, text, and data to “thousands of customers”.

After suffering the wrath of two of the most catastrophic Atlantic hurricanes ever to hit North America, Puerto Rico is struggling mightily. Over a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, towns and communities are still without power, and 48% percent of cell sites remain out of service. However, to help Puerto Rican customers communicate with their loved ones, AT&T deployed its flying COW drone to provide temporary cell service.

“In Puerto Rico, we’ve deployed our helicopter Flying COW (Cell on Wings) for the first time ever.” ~AT&T

The company went on to say that this is the first time that a drone of this kind has been used successfully.

“As we work to permanently restore our network, this experimental technology is providing data, voice, and text services to customers. This is the first time an LTE cell site on a drone has been successfully deployed to connect residents after a disaster.”

The flying COW drone was introduced by AT&T in February this year. Back then, the company reported that their drone team just completed the first successful live test flight of the alleged “cell site on a drone.”

@ATT deployed its #FlyingCow #drone to provide cell service in #PuertoRicoClick To Tweet

Who Says COWs Can’t Fly?

According to Art Pregler, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Director at AT&T, the flying COW drone is designed to beam LTE coverage from the sky to customers on the ground during disasters and other big events.

The terrible tragedy that is Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria turned out to be an opportune time to see what the Flying COW can really do.

“The Flying COW is providing wireless connectivity to customers in an up to 40-square mile-area. It flies 200 feet above the ground and can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites. Ideal for providing coverage in remote areas,” AT&T explained.

So, how does it work?

The drone is said to carry a small cell and antennas that are connected to the ground through a thin tether. The tether plays a significant role between the drone and the ground since it “provides a highly secure data connection via fiber and supplies power to the flying COW drone.” This setup gives the drone basically unlimited flight time.

Like all other cell sites, the hovering drone uses satellite to transport calls, texts, and other data. The AT&T drone is being monitored and operated by pilots during use. Once it is on air, the ‘cell site drone’ could provide LTE coverage from the sky to a designated location on the ground.

Flying COW drone being monitored by ground pilots
Flying COW drone is being monitored by ground pilots | AT&T | http://about.att.com/innovationblog

“Compared to a traditional COW, in certain circumstances, a Flying COW can be easier to deploy due to its small size. We expect it to provide coverage to a larger footprint because it can potentially fly at altitudes over 300 feet— about 500% higher than a traditional COW mast,” Pregler said.

More Flying COWS in the Future

It was last year when AT&T first utilized drones to inspect its cell site towers. It was also then when the company realized that drones could potentially be used to boost network coverage in areas where existing infrastructure is either saturated, damaged, or non-existent.

“We’ll also look to use Flying COWs to enhance coverage at big events like music festivals. Used in conjunction with traditional COWs, the Flying COW may allow us to extend coverage to the outlying areas of the festival grounds,” Pregler said early this year.

Apparently, one flying COW drone could provide coverage to up to 8,000 customers simultaneously. However, this depends on the equipment and some network factors.

The company also views the LTE drone as an essential part of the nationwide public safety network that it is currently building under contract with the federal government, the FirstNET.

The federal government authorized the First Responder Network Authority or FirstNET in 2012. It operates as an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“FirstNet was created to be a force-multiplier for first responders – to give public safety 21st century communication tools to help save lives, solve crimes and keep our communities and emergency responders safe.” ~FirstNET

In March of this year, AT&T won the $6.5 billion USD contract to build and manage America’s nationwide public safety network for its thousands of police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services.

“FirstNet will provide 20MHz of high-value, telecommunications spectrum and success-based payments of $6.5 billion over the next five years to support the network buildout,” AT&T announced.

To date, there is only one flying COW drone in operation but AT&T is reported to have been testing additional drone models to add to its fleet. Aside from the drone, AT&T is also providing Puerto Rican customers with portable satellite units at the bases of cell towers in areas where cell services are not yet restored.

Here’s a closer look at the flying COW drone.

How could AT&T’s Flying COW be a precursor to a cheap, effective worldwide data connection of the future? Would it even be feasible in comparison to Musk’s worldwide satellite 5G?

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