A flying COW ("cellular on wings") is providing a 5G network in areas with limited infrastructure and after natural disasters. The technology convergence of drones and 5G is an interesting test case for rapid, flexible network deployments that provide a useful stopgap in critical areas.
"We had intermittent, weak LTE signal at the flight location before we launched the 5G Flying COW," said Ethan Hunt, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Principal Program Manager, AT&T, about a recent test. "We flew the drone up to about 300 feet, turned on the signal and it began transmitting strong 5G coverage to approximately 10 square miles."
The rollout of 5G is notoriously troublesome, particularly in areas that may benefit most from coverage, such as rural zones. Infrastructure needs are immense. Millimeter wave technology is capable of providing incredible over-network computing speeds but reach is limited to devices in close proximity of towers. The Flying COWs may not be a permanent solution, but the rapidly deployable network has utility in a variety of use cases.
Back in February AT&T showcased the technology at the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium. Well attended sporting events put severe strain on networks and often make communications impossible, a disaster for first responders. For the Super Bowl AT&T partnered with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) -- an independent agency within the federal government -- and put three Flying COWs into service.
AT&T is leaning into research and development projects right now to both showcase and provide new use cases for its 5G technology. For example, the company has built litter of "RoboDogs" that can be used for a number of situations, from search and rescue to bomb disablement. Our teams are constantly working to improve connectivity for these devices, including outfitting them with 5G technology. Similarly, as the FAA gears up to loosen restrictions on commercial drone operations, the Drone team is testing BVLOS – which would allow the pilot to operate a drone from a completely different location. AT&T has 30 highly staff drone pilots along with hundreds of contracted drone pilots available at a moment's notice.
"Our focus within the drone world is connectivity. All of our drone solutions have that focus," said Art Pregler, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Director, AT&T. "5G brings a lot of new capability to the table. We can connect a lot larger number of devices with 5G. When we put that up, we can share with a larger population."
The drones are capable of withstanding light rain and wind speeds up to 25 miles per hour while they hover around coverage areas. Outfitted with Band 14, AT&T can use the COWs to help equip FirstNet subscribers in the US with connectivity during high-usage events.
"We are currently working through many exciting technical challenges to expand the capabilities of our Flying COWs®," said Art. "We're working to autonomously fly without tethers for months without landing, using solar power to provide secure, reliable, and fast 5G connectivity to large numbers of users over wide geographic areas. This solution may one day help bring broadband connectivity to rural and other underserved communities across the U.S. and elsewhere."