AT&T debuts cell-service drone in Puerto Rico

  • The flying COW, or cell on wings, created by AT&T is providing wireless connectivity to customers in an up to 40 square mile-area outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the hurricane devastation continues to leave major portions of the island disconnected. It flies 200 feet above the ground and can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites. Alaskan crews are helping to reconnect and using the drone technology for the first time. (Photo/Courtesy/AT&T)

A certain “flying cow” will be remembered long after it’s left Puerto Rico.

In this case, it’s AT&T’s drone invention, a cell on wings also known as a COW. At work in Puerto Rico, AT&T crews from Alaska and Washington reconnected residents of several devastated areas with cell service, using a new technology for the first time.

LTE-connected drones hold a lot of potential for FirstNet-subscribers, AT&T’s Kathryn Spencer said, referring to the telecom’s contract to develop, build and operate the nationwide broadband network for first responders.

Exploring the capabilities of this technology in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation will help restore connectivity and assess how first responders can use the drone in the future, she said.

The mini-helicopter, 7.5 feet in diameter, provides voice, data and text service.

Led by Art Pregler, the AT&T drone program director, the COW was critical in restoring wireless connectivity to customers in a 40 square mile-area outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the hurricane devastation left major portions of the island disconnected. The COW hoovers above the ground connected to controllers by a tether and can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites, Pregler said.

“It’s working as planned in an equipment configuration for over 4,000 people,” Pregler said Nov. 8. “We had tested it in the past but not in a real world disaster scenario. So far, it’s adhering to the modeling.”

The team is in Carolina, east of Puerto Rico’s capital city San Juan. When finished there, the company planned to relocate it to various other areas such as the military hospital at Manati Coliseum. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20, massive destruction complicated the ability to get cell towers back in function. It’s now into the second month for many to regain phone use, Pregler said.

“Looking at the area around here, it’s very much impacted,” Pregler said. “Power poles, pretty much any standing structures, are down. Windows are missing. Roofs are missing or pealed back. We can see the aftermath and it is significant.”

In San Juan, a city of 400,000 people, the power is mostly back, both electrical and cell power, he said.

“The Flying COW is now at edge of where it’s been fixed. If we turn it off, there’s no connectively at all,” he said.

The COW works to temporarily provide cell service. Limited by FAA requirements, it extends 200 feet to 400 feet in the air. From that vantage point, it can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites, he said. This makes it ideal for providing coverage in remote areas.

“In the meantime our network people are rebuilding the network. Once online, we can take down the flying COW and there will be no effect to the user experience. It stitches from temporary to permanent,” Pregler said.

AT&T normally uses a terrestrial unit for patching cell service. These are on vehicles that can do the same work as the Flying Cow, but extend up from the back of a truck.

“They work in an area that’s about 60 vertical feet then not beyond that,” Pregler said. “This way, we have a wider coverage area. We can establish connection for a wider area than the prior solution.”

One of the team is Alaskan Steve Poirot, an operations and safety director at Aerial Data Management for WorleyParsons. He assists in piloting the drone and developed a written procedure for operating it on a tether.

“My involvement in drones goes back to 2006, and I’ve been working in that field continuously since 2013, when we began preparing for BP’s drone operations on Alaska’s North Slope,” Poirot said. “These were the first commercial drone flights over land in the U.S., following Conoco’s earlier commercial flight over the Arctic Ocean.”

Though the AT&T-designed drone brought relatively unknown technology to interim cell restoration, it’s been working well. Better than that, Poirot, knowing the remoteness of Alaska’s wilderness where no ready power source or cell towers are nearby, anticipates a number of future uses by AT&T, he said.

Because emergency work could involve any natural or man-made disaster where crews can’t lean on a commercial power source, the COW’s can tap into a spectrum of sources, including generators, microwave, Ethernet power, even fiber connection.

“There are broad applications for the drone in all kinds of circumstances,” Pregler said. “We’re just really pleased to see it work well.”

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Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi.klouda@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/16/2017 - 1:18pm

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