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Drones Used in Disaster Relief, Creating Portable Cell Towers

at&t drone, hand holding cell phone, cell tower

In early September 2017, Hurricane Irma passed through the Caribbean islands and on to Florida. It caused the death of 134 people, and property damage was around $64.76 billion based on reports. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria swept in from the Atlantic. In Puerto Rico alone- the death toll reached between 2, 975 to 3,057, according to researchers – a far cry from the official figure. The damages from Hurricane Maria reached at least $91.61 billion.  The death toll would have been more staggering had the AT&T drones used in disaster relief not been sent to the hardest hit areas to bridge communications for people who needed help.

The AT&T drone was modified as a flying cell tower and offered 4G LTE signal for a mile, which helped in the rescue operation. Family members reunited after the hurricane separated them, and the drones played a huge part in it. This illustrates how the use of drones can spell a big difference in emergency situations, with the potential to save thousands of lives.

 Helping the First Responders

During the hurricane, the first responders in Puerto Rico had to deal with the absence of electricity and the challenges in ways to communicate. They were dependent on cell phones for communication. Without power though, residents could only use their cellphones for a limited time.

AT&T sent its cell-on-wings (COW) to help with the communications. The Puerto Rican authorities gave special permission to AT&T to use its COW drone as a flying cell site. The COW allowed access to all cell phones, not just to AT&T customers. It was especially useful for rescuers who needed to communicate with authorities and with the residents of affected areas. The COW made it possible for citizens to call for help, making rescue operations more efficient.

cartoon showing AT&T and Verizon drones being used as portable cell towers during calamities like floods and hurricanes
Drones are boosting disaster preparedness efforts by taking to the air as portable cell towers. How are companies like AT&T and Verizon acting on this fact?

AT&T Drone Flies to the Rescue

The AT&T drone used in Puerto Rico was a helicopter drone with a wingspan of 7.5 feet. Hovering at 400 feet, the COW connects to the land unit via cables which provide power to the drone. The tether also has a cable to transmit voice, data, and text to the land unit. The land unit has a satellite dish which transmits the communication data to a satellite. This is strictly a temporary solution for much-needed services in times of disaster. The AT&T drone provides communications within minutes of deployment within the area of coverage.

Drones are a critical piece of equipment in rescue efforts. Drones supply power and signal to groups mounting rescue effortss while the restoration of power and restorations were ongoing.

 Verizon’s Cone of Coverage

Verizon, on the other hand, has been testing drone coverage since 2016. It aims to provide a “cone of coverage” to rescue workers who need communications facilities after a disaster. Like the AT&T drone, residents within the coverage area will also be able to use the facility.

The latest Verizon drone is a 200-lb gas powered unmanned plane capable of flying over an area for – about 16 hours. It can soar to heights of more than 2,000 feet, and it carries a small low-power all-in-one cellular base station called a femtocell access point. Regular femtocell access points boost cellular signals in a house or a small office. Verizon aims to deploy the femtocell capable drone in later this 2018 to provide drones used in disaster relief.

Drones as temporary cell sites have several advantages. Primarily, these sites are designed for quick setup and placement wherever they may be needed. First responders can place them in the center of their area of operation. The satellite receives signal, and there is no need for a network of cell sites to forward the cellphone signal to a central exchange.

Drones Used in Disaster Relief

Before taking to the air as portable cell towers, AT&T and Verizon have used their drones after disasters to inspect damage to cell towers and buildings and locate survivors. Drones scanned flooded buildings, inspected for oil and gas leaks, and used in search and rescue operations during wildfires.

According to AT&T Drone Program Director Art Pregler, the COW drones are ready for use by emergency teams. Rescue workers only need to send the Drone Program an email or phone call requesting the service and AT&T will provide it. They will also get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) so they can deploy the drones in “no-fly zones” which cover some cities and areas near airports in cases of emergency.

Drones can boost disaster preparedness efforts in hurricane-risk areas. At the same time, neighboring cities or countries can also benefit from drones in the event of a disaster. The first few hours are crucial in saving lives and restoring order to a disaster-hit community, and drone technology will be a big part of that from now on.

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