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  • Writer's pictureTyesha Ferron

Drones are Providing Cell Phone Service in the Wake of Hurricane Michael

Photo Credit: AT&T Innovation Blog

"We would provide our flying COW to the first responders, to, say the fire department, and we would pilot it for them, so all it takes is for them to place a phone call, email, contact us and we'll provide that service." - AT&T Drone Program Director, Art Pregler

We already know that drones can do more than just fly around our backyards, or take vacation photos. They have optimized the progress of many industries and resulted in new businesses and opportunities for those interested in drone technology. Now, they have proven themselves to be a great aid during disasters. Most notably, telecommunications companies have been innovating ways to utilize drones as a method of disseminating cell service, specifically, AT&T and Verizon.

AT&T has been able to provide survivors with cell phone service with their 'Flying COW', a specially designed drone equipped with cells and antennas. In recent innovations, telecommunication giant AT&T has been working on a way to combine drones and cellular service. Their Flying Cow acts as an LTE hotspot. COW is an acronym for Cell on Wings, referring to the drone’s ability to send LTE signals and provide cellular service to those on the ground. The Flying COW is mainly making a name for itself as contributing to relief efforts following natural disasters.

Its premier flight occurred after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, where it provided temporary data, voice, text and wireless connectivity services as a remote helicopter. During any disaster, communication can be a determining factor in someone's survival, and cell phones are the quickest and easiest way to disseminate and receive information. Flying COW allowed anyone, not just AT&T customers, to call for help and update their friends and family on their condition and the state of the area. Otherwise, survivors resort to sweeping the tops of bridges in search of a signal.

The Flying COW is the first drone developed for AT&T's Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) system. Its latest iteration is an all-weather octocopter capable of flying through rain, snow, 50 mph winds, and extreme temperatures and equipped with small cells and antennas. It was designed with help from first responders of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).

Verizon has also thrown their hat into the ring of drone-based cell service. Verizon Network Vice President Michael Haberman states that their goal is to provide smartphone users the service they need to call for help or identify their location after an emergency. Earlier this year, Verizon's drones were still being tested. Haberman assured that they'd be available to use this year should there be another natural disaster.


I am a writer and an artist based in Georgia. Specializing in illustration, graphic design, and video art, I love to explore the new ways technology intersects with art. I think drones have done amazing things for photography and video art, making what would previously be costly and difficult more accessible. As a complete novice, it was only recently that I saw what independent artists could do with their drones, and I continue to be impressed by the sights that drones are able to explore and the images they can capture. Instagram: @tyesha.ferron

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