These drones could bring you a 5G network after a hurricane

What is happening

Drones flown by AT&T during disasters benefit from 5G network technology which should make them more efficient for the public and first responders.

why is it important

Climate change is making hurricanes, floods, and wildfires more frequent, and we’re relying more and more on our smartphones during disasters.

AT&T has started upgrading the drones it flies in disaster areas with 5G networks, an improvement that should increase the chances that your phone will be able to text or download evacuation plans when conventional mobile networks fail. collapse.

In recent years, the US carrier has stabilized disaster site coverage by driving trucks called COWs, or cell on wheels. He then expanded the approach with a fleet of flying COWs, or cells on wings, which provide network service to larger areas.

Last month, AT&T began testing its first 5G-equipped flying COWs so its airborne networks can ultimately connect to more people and devices than with previous 4G technology. His test took place in a remote part of Missouri, far from any other mobile networks.

“It was hard to find an area that didn’t have connectivity,” Art Pregler, drone manager at AT&T, said in an exclusive interview. “We were trying to find an area where there was no signal so we could be sure that all the signal we were picking up was coming from our drone.”

AT&T expects its 5G flying COWs to be available in about a month as the company upgrades its drones and the fiber optic tethers that connect them to the trucks that serve as communication and power bases. The drones are already staged in warehouses, ready for use. “We have them on the West Coast for fire season, in the Southeast for hurricane season, and in the Midwest for flood season,” Pregler said.

The need for disaster response technology may seem remote. But as climate change stimulates more extreme weather, the chance of your network going down increases, along with the likelihood of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other issues that destroy conventional communications. when you need it most.

“Emergency preparedness and disaster recovery for carriers has become critically important,” said Bob O’Donnell, analyst at Technalysis Research. “These COWs literally become a lifeline.”

5G, short for fifth-generation mobile network, is a collection of technologies designed to improve the speed and responsiveness of your smartphone connection. The industry is a few years away from transitioning to 5G, an expensive upgrade to mobile phone base stations that your phone connects to when you’re away from the Wi-Fi signal at your home or office.

According to AT&T estimates, one of the main benefits of 5G is higher data transfer speeds, useful for watching videos, downloading app updates or downloading photos. Another is lower latency, which means services on the network are more responsive. It is also capable of handling more devices on the network, a significant upgrade given the spread of smartphones and the fact that we are increasingly connecting cars, smart watches and other communication equipment to mobile networks. .

In its first 5G flying COW test, AT&T was able to cover about 10 square miles with a drone hovering at 300 feet. The drone connected to a satellite and delivered download speeds of 46 Mbps and upload speeds of 71 Mbps, a respectable if not blazing speed.

The purpose of the test wasn’t to maximize data speed, so don’t read too much into those numbers beyond the fact that it worked.

AT&T has used its flying COWs after real disasters, including hurricanes like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in North Carolina in 2018. When Category 4 Hurricane Michael hit Florida in 2018 , the flying COWs provided network connections to first responders searching for survivors. “For a while, we were the only operational network at Ground Zero,” Pregler said.

AT&T has an added incentive for disaster network service: It runs the network behind FirstNet, a service for first responders like police and firefighters.

Other carriers are also investing to prepare for disasters, such as setting up network equipment in advance when hurricanes arrive. Verizon in 2021 showed off Thor, a hulking truck that’s a 5G mobile base station. And T-Mobile has its own portable network vehicles, satellite cells on wheels and satellite cells on light trucks. It is also strengthening its networks and adding more backup generators in the event of a power outage.

AT&T plans to leverage a 5G option, high-frequency radio waves called millimeter waves, or mmWave, to dramatically increase data transfer speeds, to improve its flying COWs. Shorter range mmWave technology delivers blazing speeds beyond 1 Gbps.

The flying cows won’t use mmWave to connect your smartphone, but will use it to help strengthen the network as a whole, Pregler said. Specifically, mmWave connections will link multiple drones together in a sort of mesh network in the sky to expand flying COW coverage.

The COW technology itself can connect to the network in six simultaneous ways, including fiber optic links and satellites in low Earth orbit or higher Earth orbit in geostationary orbit, Pregler said.

Although AT&T expects improvements with the 5G cows, the new network technology has yet to live up to all of its initial hype.

But as carriers upgrade their networks, expand to new midband radio spectrum, and improve the 5G standard itself, better results are likely to follow. The same goes for new network services such as wireless home broadband and always-on PCs.

For emergency services, 5G’s improved ability to handle many devices is important, O’Donnell said. “The move to 5G will improve it significantly.”

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