In their effort to reconnect southeastern communities cut off by Hurricane Ida, telecom companies are taking to the skies with flying COWs. Far from heifers, however, those cell-on-wings units are ultra-buffed, extreme weather-resistant drones that provide phone service to isolated people with the outside world.
AT&T COW drones provide phone services interrupted by extreme weather
Telecom giant AT&T says it deployed its most recent generation of COWs to areas of the southeast whose electricity and communications connections have been cut off by Ida. Though tethered to a multi-purpose cable attached to ground equipment, the specialized drone can hover at 300 feet in extreme weather conditions, providing LTE phone coverage over an area of 40 miles. AT&T’s COWs can withstand wind of up to 50 mph, and operate almost indefinitely.
The aerial communication relay stations were developed by AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery Team, which has already produced several generations of the craft. The first version was rolled out nearly a half decade ago, with upgrades following from there.
The COW vehicles, which process dozens of gigabytes of data and thousands of texts and calls as they fly, were first deployed to in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria 2017. The following year, they operated 200 feet above Mexico Beach, Florida in severe weather to provide LTE coverage to residents, first responders, and surrounding counties deprived of phone service. Continued improvements have led to the current version, which operates at altitudes 500% higher than terrestrial COW masts, broadening the reach of service they provide.
The drones are equipped with small antennas that relay information sent from phones to a ground station router via optic fiber inside its tether. That data is then shot to a satellite, which redirects it into AT&T’s network. That tether also uploads power COWs fly with, enabling virtually open-ended operation.
Unlike most drones, COW craft design focuses on durability and resistance, not speed and maneuverability. As a result, it’s a buffed, sturdy vehicle built to withstand the heavy rain and wind of storms, but also sub-freezing weather, and blistering heat of fire conditions.
Indeed, far from simply being stop-gap solution until phone infrastructure can be repaired after hurricanes, COWs are now useful in many emergency situations.
Its variety of sensors can peer through the flames and smoke of wildfires. Similarly, its thermal imagining tech can penetrate various roofing material and allow firefighters to see where traps may lie inside. Its capabilities can also help first responders find people trapped beneath buildings, or help locate people lost in remote settings or under heavy forest canopies.
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