FAA Approves AT&T Drones in Puerto Rico To Help Restore Cellular Service

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on recently announced it had approved a request made by AT&T to fly a new drone that will help restore cellular service in the hurricane-hit Puerto Rico. The new unmanned autonomous aircraft developed by AT&T is known as Cell on Wings or the Flying Cow. It is the first aircraft operation of its kind functioning like a Flying Cell Phone Tower in the sky that provides voice, data and internet connection services.

The unmanned aircraft (Flying Cow) can fly up to 200 feet above, providing coverage to at least 50 square miles. According to FAA, a single AT&T drone can serve a up to 8000 people simultaneously; hence proving extremely useful in most remote areas.

In a statement, AT&T said this was the first time a Long-Term Evolution (LTE) cellular site on a drone is being deployed to connect U.S residents after a catastrophe such as what Puerto Rico recently saw. However, AT&T had only one drone serving Puerto Rico at the time of publishing, with additional models set for deployment which were in their final testing phases.

Two months after Puerto Rico’s communications networks (both wireless and broadband), alongside its power grid were damaged after Hurricane Maria hit the region in September. Since then, the US territory has been struggling to regain power, lighting and communication services. 80 percent of cell customers were connected, but 61 percent of cellular sites in Puerto Rico remained out of service, a spokesperson from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said.

The drone, which looks like a miniature helicopter, is fitted with LTE antennas and radios and is tethered to electronics and power systems operating on the ground, the FAA explained. Because the drone’s weight exceeded 55-pounds, the weight limit required to authorize small drones to operate under the federal rules; AT&T had to seek a special certificate of authorization from FAA before conducting its mission.

The drones will serve as a temporary cellular service solution while the government rebuilds permanent communication infrastructure on the island. Other innovative efforts to restore communication networks in Puerto Rico include experimental communications balloons developed by Alphabet along with T-Mobile US. The communication balloons delivering internet connectivity have been operational since October.

The FCC approved Alphabet’s “Project Loon” application to provide cellular service in Puerto Rico using a maximum of 30 balloons. The company, however, said it would not use so many balloons as each balloon provides internet coverage to an area of roughly 1, 930 square miles (5,000 square kilometers). Puerto Rico covers an area of 3,515 square miles. It’s great to see drone technology coming to the aid of those in need.

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