One of the most memorable scenes from the 1996 storm chaser film, Twister, is when the characters played by Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, and Jami Gertz are racing along twin tornadoes and a cow gets caught up in the storm, flying through the air in front of the truck. In 2022, storm chaser Brian Emfinger captured a live video of a cow being swept up into a tornado that hit Elgin, TX. Though it is not a common occurrence, flying cows from tornadoes do happen. But as one company plans to expand wireless connectivity, flying COWs may become a more common sight than expected.
As the world’s largest wireless carrier, AT&T’s goal is to bring connectivity to everyone in the US. “Connectivity is at the heart of everything we do – 140 years and counting. From our fiber network backbone to the layers of wireless spectrum technology, we provide 5G network coverage that delivers the speeds, security and lower latency connections that customers and businesses need,” said Jeff McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications. “Over the past five years, AT&T has invested more capital in the US than any other public company.” Part of that investment is in something AT&T calls a Flying COW, which stands for Cell-On-Wings.
As of March 21, 2021, AT&T’s 5G coverage was available to 230million Americans in 14,000 communities. But, there is still plenty of areas in the US with little to no wireless connectivity. And, in the event of natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires, wireless connections are often lost. It is at these times that maintaining communication routes becomes critical. This is why AT&T developed the Flying COWs, a drone that provides temporary wireless coverage in emergency situations.
AT&T has been developing the Flying COW drone program for several years now. The commercial-grade drone is compact and easy enough for a 2 person team to set up and operate. Tethered to a power supply cord, the drone can remain airborne for as long as necessary. This tether also supplies the drone with a highly secured data connection. The COW then uses satellites to transmit calls and text messages. The tether allows the drone to safely hover at altitudes up to 300ft providing wireless coverage for up to 40 square miles.
The Flying COW program was developed by Art Pregler, a former drone specialist with the US Department of Defense. “We see the Flying COW playing an important role within our Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) team,” Art said. “We can transport, deploy, and move it quickly to accommodate rapidly changing conditions during an emergency. For example, at the direction of first responders, it could follow firefighters battling a quickly moving wildfire line—keeping them connected while they fight blazes. The Flying COW is tough. It can fly and provide coverage in bad weather—from high winds to heavy smoke.”
Art went on to explain that the drones could also be used to provide coverage during live events like concerts and sporting events. “The sky is truly the limit when it comes to the use of drones on our network,” Art said. “The Flying COW is an exciting next step in how we’re using drones to bring strong wireless connectivity to those who need it most.” And though seeing a living cow swept into a tornado is something you wouldn’t want to see, AT&T’s Flying COWs will be a welcome sight for many in need of wireless connectivity.