Tethered drones bring cell service to Puerto Rico

The decimated infrastructure on Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria is a nightmare on many levels. Running water and electricity are critical, of course, but so is communication. And with the vat majority of cell towers out of service that communication is simply not happening. Residents cannot fill out FEMA forms and are otherwise cut off from the rest of the island and the world. Drones are now helping to solve that problem thanks to AT&T and a waiver granted by the FAA.

Cell sites out of service on Puerto Rico as of 17 November per FCC
Cell sites out of service on Puerto Rico as of 17 November per FCC

Cell-on-Wing takes flight

The Cell-on-Wings (“COW”) drones are based on the Pulse Aerospace Vapor 55 model. The single-rotor drone has the flexibility to carry multiple different payloads depending on the mission. In this case the payload will be LTE antennae, designed to cover small regions of Puerto Rico with sufficient coverage to get communities back online while the towers are being rebuilt. The Flying COW will hover at roughly 200 feet, with the potential to service 40 square miles.

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These drones will not be free-flying. They will be tethered to the ground by a power and data cable. This allows long-term operations and the necessary connectivity to relay information from the on-board communication nodes through network backhaul facilities.

The Flying COW weighs more than 55 pounds, necessitating special approval from the FAA for operation. That certificate was issued two weeks ago according to multiple reports. The device first flew near San Juan and is now being pushed out into more remote areas of the island where the need is more pronounced.

Where others have failed

The Flying COW is not the first attempt to deliver temporary cellular coverage over Puerto Rico in the months since the storm trashed the island. Alphabet’s Project Loon uses free flying balloons to deliver network coverage, for example. The company pressed Loon into service after negotiating with the cell providers to access the necessary spectrum. It is a noble effort but hard to declare it a total success given challenges in keeping the balloons in position over the island.

Moreover, not all phones on the ground could access the transponders on the balloons without an update. And that update couldn’t be delivered offline. Oops.

Ultimately the goal is still to rebuild the full terrestrial infrastructure. The FCC reports that as of last Friday ~64% of cell towers were operational or augmented by temporary Cell on Light Trucks (“COLT”) services. The new COW drones will further augment that coverage in hopes of quickly restoring service to the ~22% of customers still without.

Header image: AT&T

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

One Comment

  1. it’s amazing to see what kind of innovation comes from necessity. Now if they can do it for clean water too…

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